In José Mourinho, Manchester United are about to appoint an egomaniac, a rabble-rouser, a serial basher of opponents, referees and the media, a paranoia-monger, a terribly bad loser and a tracksuit dictator. What a horrible betrayal of the club ethos and all the values that Alex Ferguson has established at Old Trafford over the course of 27 years.
But, on a serious note, there is logic in United handing the keys to the castle over to the Portuguese coach, one that goes well beyond the inevitable boost to the worldwide ratings of the Man Utd soap opera that will follow this intriguing change at the top (as the Irish Times’ Ken Early pointed out in this superb piece).
Mourinho also constitutes the club’s third attempt to find another larger-than-life figure in the Ferguson mould. It’s not just PR: United long for an autocrat because there are no effective tiers of football governance or effective operators in the absence of one. While the money machine that is the Glazer’s United can now run itself, largely independent of any tangible sporting success or the quality of its output - much like the Premier League as a whole - United, the former football juggernaut, were built as a one-man-club and cannot function otherwise in its current guise.
Purists might sneer about Mourinho’s aesthetic shortcomings but he’ll give the Red Devils exactly what they want: strong, uncompromising leadership and a vertically integrated transfer policy. He’ll buy the players, play the players, sell the players. All that club boss Ed Woodward will have to do in the future is sign the cheques.
Ferguson felt that David Moyes was the the ideal candidate due to his stubborn, dour Scottish personality, but the former Everton coach soon found himself out of his depth dealing with players and pressures much bigger than he’d experienced in his previous roles.
His successor, Louis van Gaal, certainly had an ego big enough for the job but his approach differed markedly from that of Sir Alex in a number of ways. Firstly, he saw himself as a coach, not as a manager in the English sense. Buying and selling players only interested him tangentially.
The Dutchman furnished Woodward with a list of transfer targets every summer, then happily left it to United to bring in other players if those targets weren’t attainable. No one was bought against his wishes - one minor transfer indeed fell through when Van Gaal could not be reached during a holiday in Portugal last summer - but he trusted the club to find solutions, naively perhaps.
The biggest problem of all, however, was that van Gaal didn’t so much resemble Ferguson in his methods but proved his exact opposite. Whereas the Scot took a back seat during training sessions and then cajoled outstanding performances out of the team, van Gaal micro-managed training and tactics but watched games impassively, unable to instil a sense of urgency or even the fear of losing so prevalent during the Fergie years.
Van Gaal spent his time attempting to control United’s football down to specific moves; Ferguson was much more obsessed with controlling everything apart from the actual football, which was often thrillingly chaotic. The Scot actively shaped media narratives, frightened inquisitive journalists and kept the players in check with forceful “advice” on proper behaviour and a tight surveillance network to back it up.
Van Gaal, with his droll English, cranky headmaster demeanour and habit for producing strange soundbites a la “sex masochism” had neither the authority nor the street smarts to prevent unprofessional behaviour like Memphis Depay turning up for a reserve game in a Rolls-Royce. Van Gaal’s comically unsuccessful attempts to get his men to watch video analysis clips, too, speak of a basic failure to lead his team effectively, even if it doesn’t say much about the attitude of the players involved. (He’s not the only high profile manager in the Premier League who has sent out hundreds of unwatched video clips).
Mourinho, a member of van Gaal’s coaching staff at Barcelona, will be just as exacting in terms of training and match tactics as his former boss. But the 53-year-old will have a much tighter grip on the team as well on every other footballing aspect. At his best, Mourinho has been able to impart detailed direction without coming across a bore by virtue of a subtle mix of charm and bullying. His touch deserted him last season at Chelsea, but now he has the chance to show everyone that he’s still José, the “Special” and right one to make Man Utd into a feared, respected and reviled force again.