Who’s in control at Old Trafford?




“Dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations”


José Mourinho’s tactics have been described with this adjective as many as, well, I don’t know. But it’s a lot. When he chose an unorthodox 3-3-3-1 formation against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford in August, United played their finest 45 minutes of football this season in the first half. They played with pace down the wings, getting the Old Trafford faithful rising from their seats. It could be argued that, were it not for the three individual mistakes of the three centre-backs that evening, the result could have been different. 

Romelu Lukaku missed a great chance in the first half and Fred (who, along with Jesse Lingard was involved in almost every attack) played much higher up the pitch than previously positioned in games to assist the forwards. Five minutes into the second half Harry Kane scored the first with a fantastic header from a corner into the top right of the goal. Phil Jones’ error was giving him enough time and space to make a cup of Rosy Lee in the box and if you do that he can, and will, punish you. Four minutes later Ander Herrera was at fault for Lucas Moura’s first as his starting position was all wrong but that’s not surprising given the fact he is not a centre-back. Lucus Moura scored his second in the 84th minute, after embarrassing Chris Smalling – by then the game was over.

This move to the new formation, which hasn’t been used since that game, was made directly after the manager was reported to be frustrated with the club’s decision not to sign his requested centre-half. Throughout the summer, Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld was closely linked to a move, but the board decided he wasn’t needed. Was José making a statement to the board to say that despite pundits and fans opinion, he is capable of putting out a team to play attacking football? The problem is he doesn’t have the quality at the back to have the confidence to play that way.

The board’s decision not to back Mourinho in the transfer market could be based on the fact that he had already been given £60m to buy centre-halves already. Mourinho signed Eric Bailly in June 2016, who was substituted after 23 minutes after an abysmal start against Newcastle: United went 2-0 down after 10 minutes. The following season, Mourinho signed Victor Lindelöf, who has been more than disappointing since arriving at Old Trafford. It’s often a forgotten fact among football fans that Mourinho, who mainly has set up teams to play football in a pragmatic way throughout his career, has displayed he can set out a team to play attacking football and be successful. La Liga de los Récords (“The League of the Records”) was a season in which Mourinho-managed Real Madrid broke several long-standing records. They scored the most goals ever scored in a La Liga season (121) and achieved a total of 100 points: the highest points total ever achieved in La Liga.

Anthony Martial was linked with a move to many clubs over the summer and José Mourinho was widely reported to have informed Ed Woodward, Manchester United’s chief executive, to sell Martial. With the board now looking to sign Martial on a new five-year contract and deciding in the summer that a centre-half was not a necessity, there’s an important question to answer. Who is actually making the football decisions at Manchester United? Are United preparing for life without José Mourinho already? 

When Paul Pogba left United on a free transfer in 2012 after Sir Alex Ferguson had fallen out with his agent Mino Raila, few would have imagined that United would buy him back for £89m just four years later. Maybe the board do not want to sell a player that a manager who famously only stays three seasons wants to sell. You could argue that, after the Pogba fiasco, they have a point.

It can’t bode well when it appears the club’s board, who have no recognised football professionals, are in fact the same people making those crucial football decisions. Ed Woodward, employed by J.P Morgan & Co as an investment banker, joined United in 2007, overseeing their commercial and media operations. In 2005, the club’s commercial revenue was £48.7 million; in 2012, £117.6 million. ​Manchester United have announced record revenue for the 2017/18 season of £590m despite the team’s poor performance in recent years. Given these facts, its completely understandable that Malcolm Glazer would want to keep Ed Woodward at United. However, his record with regard to football matters is subject to criticism.

In his first transfer window in 2013, the club’s only signing was Marouane Fellaini for £27.5m and, with some United fans unhappy with the club’s dealings that summer, there were calls for him to be replaced. The next season, Louis Van Gaal commented during the pre-season visit to the US that “We have to prepare the season and when you have commercial activities and dreadful distances, having to fly a lot and the jet lag, it is not positive for a good preparation.” Woodward had been quoted the previous day as saying “America and Asia are the two core places we tend to go to and both of them deliver a huge amount. The Premier League has been very clear in saying America is the No1 developing market… this is a very good country [for us] from a potential sponsorship perspective, a potential media perspective. We’ve got more fans here than we have in the UK.” 

It was made very apparent then that the club’s commercial activities and sponsorship deals were far more important to Ed Woodward and the board than the club’s performances on the field. A day before the transfer window shut at the start of this season and Mourinho still without his centre-half, United announced a three-year sponsorship deal with Scotch Whisky brand Chivas Regal in a video on the official website in a similar fashion as they had announced Pogba and Sanchez’s arrivals. It’s clear that Woodward is willing to purchase a top player but is it a requirement to have just under 35 million followers on social media to aid with the club’s shirt sales?

David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and now Mourinho have all failed to mount a serious title challenge and at the same time United’s neighbours, only an 8-minute Uber ride away, have been winning trophies, breaking records and playing some of the most attractive football ever seen played in this country. It seems as though Malcolm Glazer’s strategy to maintain United’s position as the wealthiest club in world football depends mainly on commercial and media success rather than gaining silverware. I doubt this is sustainable. If the team continue to underperform and fail to reach the Champions League this season or the next, surely future sponsorship deals cannot be as lucrative.

In recent weeks, the relationship between José Mourinho and the club’s record signing, Paul Pogba has appeared frosty to say the least. Mourinho told Pogba he would never captain the team again. He stripped him of the vice captaincy, supposedly banned him from speaking to the press and had a training ground row over a misunderstanding regarding an Instagram post the World Cup winner put up during the Carabao Cup loss to Derby County. When the now infamous footage of Pogba and Mourinho at Carrington was “leaked” by Sky Sports it was huge news and understandably so. The club’s record signing and the manager in a training ground bust up? Upon second viewing using footage with enhanced sound it is now clear it was all a storm in a Lowry hotel teacup. Mourinho made a comment to Pogba about the post as it was a video of himself and Luke Shaw laughing during the game. The manager thought it had been posted after the team had lost the game. In the video Mourinho calls over United’s press officer John Allen to clarify the situation. The video was in fact posted during the game. That morning, Sky Sports’ had access to training on a pre-arranged session that forms part of the club’s media obligations. This allows them to film 15 minutes once a week. 

Mourinho would have been well aware the cameras were rolling and it wouldn’t surprise me if the row with Pogba wasn’t instigated by the manager. Zlatan Ibrahimovic once said of Mourinho “Mourinho is the disciplinarian. Everything with him is a mind game’. The previous Saturday, Pogba criticised his manager’s tactics when speaking after Wolves took a point from Old Trafford after drawing 1-1.”We should play much better against Wolves… When we are at home we should attack, attack, attack. That’s Old Trafford. We are here to attack.”

Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez has been criticised for his poor performances since joining the club in January. He made 166 appearances, scoring 80 goals and largely played on the left-hand side of attack, just as he does at United. The problem he’s having is that, unlike at Arsenal, he is having to drop deep to cover his full-back. If his starting position is 70 yards from goal what should fans expect? Pogba is indistinguishable from the player who won four Serie As in a row with Juventus. In a 4-3-3 formation, Antonio Conte played Pogba on the left-hand side of the midfield with Andrea Pirlo sitting as a deep lying playmaker and Arturo Vidal on the right-hand side. With Pirlo behind him he was given the freedom to play and his performances were indicative of a player enjoying his football. Many could see why United paid £89m for him and the hope was that he would answer United’s long-standing midfield crisis. Since his return I find it hard to think of more than a handful of games where he has shown any glimpses of that form. In an away league defeat against Tottenham Hotspur last season, Pogba was slaughtered by pundits for not playing with enough discipline in midfield. He was asked to sit alongside Nemanja Matic in front of the back four in a 4-2-3-1 formation and was given huge defensive duties. 

Pogba being asked to sit as a deep lying midfielder has been an often occurrence and, given this fact, it’s not surprising that he hasn’t shown his best form. Can you think of any of the top 10 clubs in the world who would spend £89m on a defensive midfielder?

The home fans’, chant of “Attack, Attack, Attack” has, unsurprisingly, been heard more and more in recent weeks as the fans get frustrated with results and more importantly performances. Pogba’s specific use of the term in his interview could be seen as a rallying call to the fans. He’s right, when United attack rather than play defensively looking to counter they achieve better results. Players such as Sanchez, Rashford, Martial and Pogba flourish when given licence to attack. If they are given too much defensive work to do, their starting positions are too deep and they have too much to do when they win the ball back.

But you could argue that a player who criticises a manager so publicly has overstepped the mark and action needed to be taken. Has Mourinho chosen the best way to do it? When Liverpool scored 3 against Manchester United at Anfield to draw a game in January 1994, Alex Ferguson threw a tirade of abuse at his goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel  in the dressing room after the game. Ferguson was furious with his goalkeeper for continually kicking long balls that the Liverpool centre-half Neil Ruddock continued to win. Schmeichel strongly retaliated and was told the following day that he would be sacked. He stayed at Old Trafford after he was made to apologise to the team and the manager. Schmeichel went on to win 3 domestic doubles in 93-94, 95-96 and 98-99. The latter also being his last season for United which resulted in Schmeichel himself lifting the European Cup. Ferguson was correct to deal with the situation swiftly and fairly in respect of Schmeichel’s teammates and was proved to be effective in his decision making, no one is bigger than the club. Not even a player who was arguably the best goalkeeper in the world at the time.

Who is advising José right now? His No. 2 Rui Faria left at the end of last season to pursue a job in management. Mourinho first met Faria, a PE graduate when he was working as Van Gaal’s assistant at Barcelona. Faria attended a seminar day held at the Camp Nou and there he met Mourinho. They got on instantly and it became apparent to each other that their coaching philosophies closely matched. When Mourinho took the Uniao Leiria job in the spring of 2001 he employed Faira as his fitness coach and video analyst and since then has been a mainstay of Mourinho’s coaching staff. It can’t be underestimated how much of an impact losing your right-hand man after 17 years must have.

In his programme notes for the Champions League game against Valencia he said, “All of my life, I have followed certain golden rules, one of them is that a team can lose matches – that is just part of football – but the team must never, ever lose its dignity.” Incredibly rich, given the fact he was once suspended for poking Barcelona’s assistant manager Tito Vilanova in the eye during an El Clàsico derby. In the 3-2 comeback against Newcastle United he said that Rashford and McTominay were “scared” on the pitch due to him being the victim of a “man-hunt’. A bizarre claim given that United have made their worst start to a season in 29 years. It was also strange that Mourinho named both players, the youngest United players on the pitch. He could have easily said that some players were scared. He remarked that taking Mctominay off and placing Matic in the centre half position with Pogba dropping deep just in front of the back two was a decision based on the fact he needed some “quality” at the back. It doesn’t look as if José is getting good advice from his team with these strange outbursts. If Mourinho and Pogba fall out further, will he drop him? If results don’t improve I doubt it and you could say that Mourinho has almost made Pogba undroppable. The problems continue to mount.

You could say that Malcolm Glazer is right to continue to employ Ed Woodward as his chief executive as, since his arrival they have become the wealthiest club in the world. Woodward is perhaps correct in making sure assets such as players who are told they are surplus to requirements by the manager are kept just incase Mourinho isn’t there next season. It is right that Mourinho takes on a player who has challenged him publicly and it is also right when Pogba says that United need to attack. There is a good case to say that they are all right.

Stephen Fry once said that “One of the greatest human failings is to prefer to be right rather than effective” and herein lies the problem. None of this has been dealt with sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations. Pragmatism does not seem to be the order of the day at Old Trafford.

With Mourinho being charged by the FA for allegedly using “abusive, insulting or improper language” after the Newcastle game it doesn’t look as if there is an end to his problems. The struggle for power at Old Trafford doesn’t look like ending anytime soon either.

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