Russ Cowper on a critical time for a coach at the crossroads and a compromised club.
I am writing this on the eve on the FA Cup final , where Manchester United, one of the world’s greatest clubs, will be competing for one of the world’s most famous trophies. They have finished runners up in the Premier League and easily qualified for next season’s Champions League, yet this is set to a back drop of their noisy neighbours being crowned champions for the third time in seven seasons and their bitter rivals Liverpool preparing to play in the Champions League final in Kiev. A quick look at their Fan TV channels, online forums and social media followers or even a chat to one of their supporters exposes an underlying feeling of frustration tempering on annoyance and anger at their current situation. On social media there is a growing number of fans calling for Mourinho to leave, albeit at the moment most remain loyal but the frustration is palpable all the same.
The most common theme among the disenchanted is Mourinho’s apparent betrayal of the time honoured United way of playing. United fans don’t necessarily expect their team to win but they do expect as the song goes to play football “the Matt Busby way”.
United are a club with a proud tradition of playing attacking football: they use wingers; they pile forward at every opportunity, create chances, take chances and entertain and it is this style of football that is anachronistic to the arch pragmatist Mourinho.
Mourinho is not a United manager in the classical sense; he does not possess the attacking spirit of Busby, Docherty and Ferguson and he will happily park the bus and grind out a point where previous managers would have thrown caution to the wind and sent on extra forwards in pursuit of victory. The sheer amount of late winners scored by Ferguson’s United team is testament to that spirit. United fans wholeheartedly believe it’s the only way to play and the Stretford End booming out endless chants of “attack attack attack” defines their whole ethos. They turn up expecting to see attacking football as their tradition demands.
Ferguson’s United teams played 4-4-2. They had wingers from Ralph Milne to Ronaldo, Kanchelskis to Giggs, they played two forwards at all times. The great ‘99 side could pick two forwards from Sheringham, Cole, Yorke and Solksjaer: all players who would have walked into any other side in the country. Keane prowled the midfield, Scholes was world class personified, Butt was the prefect back up. Out wide they had ‘Goldenballs’ Beckham and the irrepressible Giggs. The full backs overlapped and they were strong and organised defensively. The team was constantly on the front foot. They attacked relentlessly and wore down even some of the greatest of European sides. They had spirit too, they fought, they were proud to wear the shirt and in Ferguson they had the perfect mentor.
Contrast that to the Mourinho version of United. They remain strong at the back and possess a world class goalkeeper, yet their full backs are aging. Young remains in front of the more adventurous Shaw, Valencia looks more likely to hit row L than Lukaku. Where once Keane was enough Mourinho employs two of Matic, Herrera and McTominay and none of them approach Keane’s class. The fans cry out for genuine wingers, Mourinho gives them Mata and Rashford, both very good players but not wingers in the true sense of the word. Instead of two upfront you have Lukaku with Lingard attempting to join him from a 10 position. Its typical Mourinho in that United are big, physically strong, defensively sound yet lack a real spark. Pogba, who was bought back for an enormous fee, is constrained by the rigidity of the system while Sanchez looks lost and ineffective and now blocks Martial’s route to the first team. Martial is the one player my United supporting friend loves to watch as he is a throwback to the winger days.
My friend has supported United for 40 years, he is a season ticket holder, knows his football and when we talk the words he uses to describe United are dull, boring, unadventurous, defensive and too cautious. He hasn’t given up on Mourinho just yet as Jose does deliver trophies – he is very good at that – but where my friend once spoke with great affection of Hill and Coppell he now feels alienated by the football he is watching. He of course will be going to Wembley hoping for a victory but as he says: ‘it’s not so much fun anymore’.
If United lose I wonder if we will see the end of Mourinho at United? He couldn’t provide the exciting teams Abramovich demanded and I can’t see him providing the team United fans crave either. If United win, he will cling on I’m sure, but at what cost to Manchester United’s reputation?
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