It’s never a good day for Manchester United when they lose to Liverpool but to offer such a toothless display and be beaten so comprehensively by their bitter rivals, as they were in the 3-1 defeat at Anfield on Sunday, was clearly the final nail in the coffin for Jose Mourinho, writes Liam Brady.
But this was also a day that had been coming for at least 18 months. Player by player, incident by incident, the fallings out, the finger-pointing, the recurring message that everyone and everything else was to blame — with Mourinho at the helm, Old Trafford has not been a happy or stable place for a long time.
But, first and foremost, he has to look in the mirror. While he has repeatedly complained about not getting the backing to bring in the players he needed, his own dealings in the transfer market left a lot to be desired.
Just take Alexis Sanchez as a prime example. With Manchester City also in the hunt for the Chilean, Mourinho made sure the club really pushed the boat out to get the former Arsenal star, paying him an eye-watering salary that put him well above the norm even by the extravagant standards of the Premier League.
And then, after all that, he struggles to get into Mourinho’s team.
Even more striking, and there for everyone to see, was the complete collapse in his relationship with Paul Pogba.
Pogba made no secret of the fact he had lost confidence in the manager but, more than that, he seemed almost indifferent to his fate under Mourinho. The only explanation, in my opinion, is that with his marquee reputation enhanced by how well he had done in helping France win the World Cup, Pogba had made the calculation it would only be a matter of time before the club got rid of Mourinho and replaced him with someone he would really want to play for.
And not only Pogba.
In recent times Mourinho had repeatedly been asked if he’d lost the dressing room or, when it was put more diplomatically, if he believed the players were still giving him 100%. Characteristically, he quite cleverly turned the question on its head, suggesting his critics were accusing the players of being dishonest and arguing that, no matter who the manager is, professional footballers should always give everything, in training and on the pitch.
But Mourinho knows full well — as does everyone in football and everyone who follows football — that that’s just not how it works. Losing the dressing room simply means losing the respect of the players, usually because they no longer have any confidence in the manager’s selections, tactics and man-management.
You don’t have to like someone to respect them but, in football, when a manager loses that bedrock respect from his players, it’s only a matter of time before it shows on the pitch. And it has done, pretty much since the start of the season, at United.
For someone who once seemed to tick all the boxes for serial success, in his time at Old Trafford, Mourinho has increasingly been ticking all the boxes that appeared guaranteed to get him the sack.
Apart from the recurring turbulence off the pitch, there was always the fundamental problem that Mourinho doesn’t advocate the style of football with which the club is synonymous. And never has done, throughout his career.
Although they were the dominant team in Portugal, Porto didn’t have a tradition of playing expansive football.
At Chelsea, as well as inheriting a really good squad, Mourinho found in Roman Abramovich an owner who was so desperate for success that it didn’t really matter how it was achieved. And, under Mourinho, Chelsea did it by being very strong in defence and hitting teams on the break, essentially his trademark way of operating.
For the same reason, Inter Milan suited him down to the ground, given their history and status as, in club terms, the virtual embodiment of the ‘the Italian way’, a team that liked nothing better than to prevail by playing defensive football.
So there are clubs that suited Mourinho but Real Madrid weren’t one of them, and I think that showed in the way the team performed under him and in his own misbehaviour on the sideline.
The fans at Stamford Bridge might have been pleased but I was quite surprised that Chelsea brought him back because, while Abramovich had been happy with the success they had enjoyed under him first time around, it was clear by time of his return that the owner, perhaps naively, had now upgraded his ambition for the team to play football like Barcelona.
And when Abramovich started to interfere in their transfer dealings, it wasn’t long before Mourinho was making his disapproval known, was falling out with people and on his bike again.
For all the reasons outlined above, I never regarded Mourinho as the right fit for Manchester United. I’ll always remember how, when they beat Ajax to win the Europa League — having done so by playing in a pragmatic way rather than in the traditional attacking style associated with the club — he stuck three fingers up in the air to represent the three trophies he’d won that season: The Community Shield, the League Cup and now the Europa League. He also instructed his players to do likewise.
That was the moment I was sure this was not going to work out.
Apart from his preferred style of football, there was always another fundamental concern about his suitability to be the manager of Manchester United: The fact that, again in defiance of the DNA of the club, he had never been one to bring young players through and allow them to develop into top players.
He prefers proven, senior players which is why there was always the sense he really didn’t have complete faith in the likes of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard. Worse, he would sometimes show it in public, as in the recent Champions League game against Young Boys when, after Rashford spurned a great chance to score, the television cameras picked up Mourinho shaking his head and turning to the crowd as if to say, ‘and you’re telling me this lad is a good player’.
His public criticism of Luke Shaw was another unpleasant and counter-productive example of Mourinho playing the blame game. When a manager comes out in public and slates a player like that, not only does it affect the guy at the receiving end but it affects all the other players in the dressing room. But increasingly with Mourinho, as things went from bad to worse with the team, his main concern seemed to be about protecting his own reputation.
Add in the fact he never put down roots in Manchester and it all adds up to a picture of someone who really didn’t want to be there. And I think that disenchantment really took hold at the end of last season when he realised he wasn’t going to be able to challenge Manchester City, that the players he’d brought in hadn’t delivered what he wanted, and the board weren’t going to come up with the money to give him another chance to try to put things right. That’s when the cracks really started to widen. And, though there has been the occasional good result along the way, and even qualification for the knock-out stages of the Champions League, the story of this season so far has been one of stark decline, with the team’s capitulation at Anfield proving the final straw.
As a club, Manchester United is at a crossroads now, the challenge more than just about replacing Mourinho. The Glazers will also have to ask if Ed Woodward is the right man to carry things forward. The big European clubs have always had a general manager, invariably an ex-player, who could advise on football matters but Woodward seems to have relied either on his own judgement or the judgement of people who haven’t been up to it.
People will say that all the problems at United pre-date Mourinho and can be traced back to the end of the Alex Ferguson era. But even allowing for how toweringly influential a figure Ferguson was at Old Trafford, the really big football clubs should be able to change their manager every three or four years if necessary and still maintain their high standards.
But you need the right structure in place to enable that to happen and, since losing not only Ferguson but also the experience of David Gill, United have clearly struggled to find the right way of doing things, on and off the park.
So where to now for Mourinho?
He will surely now be seen as damaged goods by the big European clubs, like Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and even Paris St Germain, all of whom want their teams to play exciting, attacking football. And Mourinho just doesn’t seem capable of doing that. Moreover, since the days when he was hugely successful, football has moved on.
Just look at the way Liverpool play now. After that defeat on Sunday, Mourinho talked about the intensity of their play, as if to suggest he hadn’t been given the players he needed to emulate that approach.
But, as the coach, it was his job to get that work rate and intensity out of his players. And that has long since ceased to happen under his leadership at Old Trafford.
As to United’s next move, the word is that they will appoint a caretaker manager until the end of the season. If I was in charge, I’d get Arsene Wenger in there, even if only on a temporary basis, because you know he would get the team playing the kind of football both the players and the fans crave. And wouldn’t it be the greatest irony if the man Mourinho once dubbed a “specialist in failure” would replace him and, in my opinion, get United back to winning ways by playing in the United way?
But regardless of who gets the job, even in the short term, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a rejuvenated United going on a run in the Premier League and even progressing in the Champions League.
Because I do believe the players are there. Sure, defensively, they need a big improvement but that should start to happen once they have someone in to coach them properly and create a stable unit at the back.
All Mourinho ever did was change the players.
And, now that they’ve changed the manager, United have taken the first step to getting the club back on track.