Jose Mourinho never aspired to be a football ‘Wordsworth’. We knew that regardless of his post-Europa League final interview. The Manchester United manager thrives on pragmatism and his 20th major title, like his previous 19, was a triumph of pragmatism. Men dominated boys at the Friends Arena in Stockholm. A callow Ajax side was outmuscled and outwitted by United, and it was a fantastic achievement for the English club against the backdrop of a barbaric and cowardly act of terrorism at Manchester Arena that took away 22 innocent lives and injured many.
Mourinho had taken a huge punt by prioritising the Europa League and somewhat ignoring the Premier League towards the end of the season, all the while complaining about a cramped fixture pile-up. The final was a make-or-break affair for the Portuguese in terms of taking his team back among the European elites—Champions League football, that is. He didn’t have the licence to fail. And after doing the job with the economy of everything, from ball possession to forward movements, the post-match press conference presented him with an opportunity to talk about ‘poets’ and winning.
“The poets are the ones that win every match. I think I am going to have one of these jobs in a few years. I always lose matches, but some guys win every time and I don’t. But in a bad season, in a season where sometimes I felt my team is the worst in the world and I am the worst manager in the world, we won three trophies and go to the Champions League by winning a trophy. Not by finishing second or third or fourth. And we have the honour of going to the Super Cup.”
“So the season was the victory of pragmatism and the people who respect the opponent and try to exploit the opponents’ weakness. Based on pragmatism and humble principles, not poets…” If you can read between the lines, the dig was aimed at Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp; Mourinho’s counterparts at Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Liverpool, respectively, who finished top four in the Premier League, but failed to win a title this term. The new generation of managers has been hailed as the proponents of flair football.
Mourinho, 54, takes exception to the media’s and pundits’ perceived indifference towards his methods for pragmatic football. Mourinho is a winner in his own right. But football is not only about winning, especially at a club like United, where success and style go hand in hand. Mourinho is the only manager in United’s history to win two titles in his first season. He has secured a Champions League spot. Still, it’s difficult to say his opening performance at Old Trafford is an overwhelming success. Just 69 points from 38 matches in the Premier League and a sixth-place finish is a serious under-achievement, given that the manager brought in a £89-million player (Paul Pogba), a proven goal machine (Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and Bundesliga’s player of the season (Henrikh Mkhitaryan).
United scored only 54 goals in the league this season. They had 15 draws. Compare this with the 2015-16 season, when United had 66 points, but finished fifth. Still, Louis van Gaal had to go despite winning the FA Cup because people in the smart seats wanted Mourinho to restore the team’s winning mentality. After two trophies this term, it’s difficult to argue that the United hierarchy made a mistake, but come 2017-18, Mourinho won’t have too many excuses to offer if his side fails to mount a serious Premier League title challenge. And to retain their global appeal and a stranglehold on football commerce, United will have to do it the United way.
“You want to see them win trophies, but you also want to see expansive football—sometimes you can’t have it all.
They can’t spread their wings and they have not punished teams. They have got goals and sat there, and teams have got confidence. They have nicked goals, drawn games and that has been a problem. It can’t happen next year if they want to be a success,” club legend Rio Ferdinand said, speaking to BT Sport after the Europa League final.
Mourinho will go shopping big-time during close season. Antoine Griezmann, at £85 million, is said to be his top target. This begs the question: what will happen to Marcus Rashford’s development, a world-class potential? The 19-year-old was being played out of position until Ibrahimovic suffered a cruciate knee-ligament injury that needed surgery. Rashford has done enough to be United’s frontman next season and a big money arrival could stall his progress.
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Also, what about kids like Josh Harrop and Demetri Mitchell who played the team’s final Premier League fixture of the season and offered a good view to the future? Mourinho played a very young side against Crystal Palace because he wanted to rest his top players before the Europa League final. And the manager’s track record suggests that the youngsters will be forgotten till the next contingency plan is required.
Season ticket holders at Old Trafford will confirm that this is contrary to the United culture. The Red Devils are the most decorated team in England alright, but their journey, from Ernest Mangnall to Alex Ferguson via Matt Busby, has always been about a ruthless desire for success and expansive football, with the academy graduates taking centrestage.
It’s unfair to judge a manager in his first season at a big club, experience and past records notwithstanding. Hopefully, the silverware this term has given Mourinho the required platform to march ahead in style.