You get the impression that José Mourinho has always quite fancied Manchester United. Even when he was being unpleasant towards them in his Chelsea heyday, he never hated them as much as he did Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, or Rafa Benítez’s Liverpool.
The respect towards Alex Ferguson was evident, if fleeting, and perhaps this was in hope that he’d one day succeed the Scot on the Old Trafford throne.
If this was the aim, it didn’t quite go to plan as Ferguson chose his compatriot David Moyes, but the former Everton coach struggled at the helm of one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Since then, however, Mourinho’s former mentor Louis van Gaal has been in to lay the foundations and the stage is now set for Mourinho to join the club he’s always looked destined to lead.
In many ways he’s the perfect fit, but following the announcement there have been numerous rumblings of discontent. Who better to sum up the general consensus on Mourinho becoming manager of Manchester United, than club legend Eric Cantona?
“I love José Mourinho,” says the Frenchman, “but in terms of the type of football he plays I don’t think he is Manchester United.”
Whether intentionally or accidentally, the much revered former United player is acting as a spokesman for many followers of the club who are saying and thinking the same thing. In this interview with The Guardian’s Owen Gibson, Cantona went on to say: “I don’t think it’s the type of football that the fans of Manchester United will love, even if they win.
“He can win with Manchester United. But do they expect that type of football, even if they win? I don’t think so.”
According to this line of thinking, Mourinho won’t fit the club ethos; he won’t play the brand of football which took the club to glory under Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson; and, perhaps more damningly, he won’t offer anything different to the supposedly dull defensive tactics seen at Old Trafford under Louis van Gaal.
What is José Mourinho?
Mourinho is a van Gaal disciple, this much is true, but in their own way so are the likes of Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman, Frank de Boer, Luis Enrique, and Philip Cocu. They’re influenced by him, rather than carbon copies – just like Mourinho.
Van Gaal once described Mourinho as “an arrogant young man, who didn’t respect authority that much, but I did like that of him.”
The Dutchman added: “He was not submissive – he used to contradict me when I was in the wrong. Finally, I wanted to hear what he had to say and ended up listening to him more than the rest of the assistants.”
He was once a man whose time as van Gaal’s assistant was spent suggesting where his manager might be going wrong. Now an experienced manager in his own right, he has the opportunity to build on foundations laid by the man he learnt so much from, and put right his wrongs for real.
It’s safe to say that Mourinho has confidence in his own methods, and he will breed the same confident, winning mentality in his team of players – at least in the first couple of seasons. But while United may have been drawn to the winning element of the Mourinho package (and the money this generates), what does the former Chelsea manager really offer on the pitch?
At Porto and Chelsea it could be said that his football was defensive, but it was also effective and occasionally thrilling and direct in attack.
Like a canny, intelligent predator ready to pounce, Mourinho’s sides ripped stronger opponents apart by waiting for them to expose their weaknesses.
It was as part of the backroom staff at Bobby Robson’s Barcelona that Mourinho’s attention to detail when scouting opponents became apparent. In a time when video analysis wasn’t used as exhaustively as it is today, Mourinho would show players recordings of opposition teams and players to help them in the upcoming fixture.
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Read | José Mourinho: the early years
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His teams learn the weaknesses of the sides they face, but more importantly they also learn when to show their own strengths. These strengths aren’t about one particular aspect of the game, and can be very much about taking games one opponent at a time. The mentality is constant but the plan can differ, and the execution of this plan can often be entertaining.
Entertaining football isn’t all about having the ball, it’s about what you do when you get it. Manchester United have never really been about dominating the ball.
They were always about dominating opponents. Intimidating opponents.
Make no mistake, Mourinho will still produce tactical shithousery of the highest order when the need arises, but in between he’ll use his usual formations of 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 to create a hardworking, disciplined side which also possess plenty of cutting edge and clinical ability in attack.
It’s direct attacking football, sometimes on the counter-attack, but not always, which uses the natural gifts of the four attacking players to build on a solid structure at the back.
On top of this you have the dynamic solidity of the typical Mourinho full-back. Overlapping when required but tactically aware, the two lateral defenders often typify the manager’s outlook.
It’s no surprise that the players at right and left back for Mourinho often become the best in their position in the league. From Paulo Ferreira and Nuno Valente, via Maicon and Javier Zanetti, to Branislav Ivanović and César Azpilicueta The appointment could see Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw fulfil the promise they’ve already shown in a United shirt.
The evidence shows that the Portuguese manager’s traits may not be as easily defined as the naysayers are suggesting, and that he may even be the snuggest fit for Manchester United’s ethos since Ferguson.
What is Manchester United?
In managerial terms Manchester United are Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby. Mostly.
Bobby Charlton has commented that during Busby’s era “the idea of tactics that are part of the game now, weren’t then. What he did was make sure he got the best players and instilled in them a will to entertain.”
While there are many accounts supporting the idea that Busby’s tactics amounted to nothing more than letting the players go out and play their natural game, there may have been more to it than met the eye.
The winning mentality was instilled in the players, but there was also a basic tactical understanding which was rare in English teams of that time.
In his book The Heart Of The Game, Jimmy Greaves recounts a half-time tactical change which helped Busby’s United come from behind to win the 1948 FA Cup Final against Blackpool. Greaves wrote: “To counteract the threat of [Stanley] Matthews and [Stan] Mortensen, Matt Busby told United’s Stan Pearson and Henry Cockburn to get tighter and close down Blackpool skipper Harry Johnstone, and Hughie Kelly in the middle of the pitch. Busby also instructed the outside left, Charlie Mitten, to drop deeper and help his full back Jonny Aston deal with Matthews.”
This cut off the supply to Matthews, and even if the ball did make it to the legendary English winger he was double-marked.
It allowed United to attack more freely in other areas of the pitch, and they went on to score three goals to Blackpool’s none in the second-half, claiming the club’s second FA Cup having won their first way back in 1909.
It’s a simple tactic which is still used to this day, and shows that the man responsible for creating much of the Manchester United image and style was using tactics which would be considered Mourinho-like way back in 1948.
The attitude back then was one of freedom and fearlessness, coupled with some basic tactical instruction, and while much of this remains part of the ethos to the present day, some of the freedom was sacrificed when Ferguson’s United met Real Madrid in 2000.
Attempting to defend the Champions League trophy they won so dramatically in 1999, Ferguson’s side had made the quarter-finals and were hosting Madrid at Old Trafford following a favourable 0-0 draw at the Bernabéu.
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Read | José Mourinho: the Porto years
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United’s players were let loose to finish Madrid off on home soil, but they fell to a 3-2 defeat.
The Guardian’s Rob Smyth called it “one of the most important games in modern Manchester United history,” adding, “Not only did it irrevocably damage their hopes of a European dynasty; it led to the most significant philosophical change in the history of the club.”
“Before that game Ferguson sent his teams out in Europe to score one more than the opposition; since then, for the most part, he has sent them out to concede one fewer.”
For all the freedom of spirit espoused by Busby, and continued in patches by Ferguson, both could be as pragmatic as the next man when it came to doing what was necessary in big games.
Ferguson’s use of players such as Park Ji Sung, Darren Fletcher, and for a short but important period, Owen Hargreaves, also run parallel to the Mourinho way of thinking.
Cantona wouldn’t like the idea, but from Nobby Stiles to Nicky Butt, Darren Fletcher, and now Van Gaal’s version in the shape of Daley Blind, United have always had “water carriers”. It’s this type of player which made United teams difficult to beat. It’s this type of player which makes Mourinho teams difficult to beat.
Some focus on stopping the opposition from playing, a recognition of a need to tighten things up in big games, and the instillation of a winning mentality are traits which are as United as they are Mourinho.
But what of the baggage he brings?
Bobby Charlton didn’t like it when Mourinho poked Tito Vilanova in the eye (no-one did): “A United manager wouldn’t do that,” said the club’s iconic former captain, adding that, “Mourinho is a really good coach but that’s as far as I would go really.”
But if Mourinho can clean up his act when it comes to this type of extra curricular activity, then Charlton might find that the new man is more than just a good coach.
He might also find that he’s the ideal man to bring back something which he, Cantona, Busby and Ferguson were all used to: winning.
In a recent Daily Telegraph article, Sam Wallace described the kind of player Mourinho favours as “wingers who track back, midfielders who defend, goalscorers who pressurise opposition defences.”
It’s questionable that he likes midfielders who defend. He certainly likes a defensive midfielder though he also liked Frank Lampard but, this aside, the list isn’t a far cry from the type of players Manchester United favour too.
Like a lot of the things being written and said about how Mourinho won’t fit into the current perception of The Manchester United Way, the points raised also show why he will fit. Perfectly.
United were feared, and at their peak they were genuinely hated by some, just as Mourinho has been at times throughout his managerial career.
Some adaptation will be needed from both sides, naturally, which may explain why the contract negotiations appear to be dragging out a little, but if it all goes to plan United could see that intimidating, winning aura return to Old Trafford.
There’s a devil on that club crest, after all.
By James Nalton. Follow @JDNalton