Manchester United made the right decision in firing Jose Mourinho, but the club still have serious problems.
Manchester United have fired Jose Mourinho. Who can blame them?
United have been awful this season. They’re currently sixth in the league, 11 points out of fourth and 19 behind Liverpool at the top of the table. The underlying numbers paint an even uglier picture: Understat’s expected points table has them in 11th place, three points above Crystal Palace.
No single person deserves the blame for such overwhelming underperformance, but Mourinho has played a significant role. He failed to implement any discernible style of play, lurching from a back three to a back four for no apparent reason, pressing occasionally in some games, before sitting deep the next, alienating his best payers and leaving the rest devoid of confidence. If he succeeded at anything, he succeeded at lowering expectations at United so significantly no one noticed how bad of a job he was doing.
What’s more, none of this has been particularly surprising. Mourinho’s reputation for flaming out after three seasons is well-earned, but more importantly there were clear warning signs during his second campaign at Old Trafford that he has lost his winning touch.
United finished second in 2017-18 on 81 points — a decent total under the circumstances — but owed that largely to an extraordinary season by David de Gea. They conceded 15 goals fewer than expected over the course of the campaign, and finished four spots higher than expected as a result.
There is no question Mourinho is one of the finest managers of the past two decades, but the warning signs that he is no longer the serial winner he once was have been ringing loud and clear since 2015-16, when he was fired by Chelsea midway through what was, at the time, the worst title defense in Premier League history. Despite all this, United rewarded him in January with a contract extension through 2020.
Which brings us to the bigger problem: The club may have made the right call in firing Mourinho, but there is little to no evidence to suggest they’re capable of making the right call in replacing him.
There were reports over the summer that United were in the market for a director of football, a much-needed hire for a team that have lacked any coherent long-term strategy since Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill left in 2013.
Ed Woodward has botched almost every major decision he has had to make since becoming executive vice-chairman. What reason does anyone have to believe he will end that streak now, with United’s season all but lost already? (And no, they’re not winning the Champions League.)
The early favorites to replace Mourinho are Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Laurent Blanc and Zinedine Zidane. Solskjaer’s a legend at Old Trafford, and might succeed in returning the club to their attacking roots, but he has spent the past three years in charge of Molde in Norway, hardly preparation for leading a club of United’s stature.
Laurent Blanc’s resume is slightly more impressive, but he hasn’t managed a team since he left PSG in the summer of 2016, and was hardly a roaring success at the Parc des Princes either, despite winning three league titles.
Then there is Zidane, who did an impressive job at Real Madrid under not dissimilar circumstances, taking over from Rafa Benitez in the middle of the season and leading Los Blancos to a Champions League title five months later.
Of course United do not have anything close to the team Real had then. Their players are certainly better than Mourinho made them look, but the squad remains bloated and a little incoherent. It looks, as it happens, exactly like you’d expect it to look given it was built over five years by three different managers and an incompetent executive with more money than any of them knew what to do with.
It is hard to imagine this season getting any worse than it already is for United, but unfortunately this season is the least of their worries.