As with everything that happens at Manchester United these days, we must first check in on the contract that the club gave David Moyes way back in the dim, distant past of 2013/14. Six years, right? That would still be running until … yes, until the end of this season. Brilliant.
So if United’s plans had worked, they’d be going into their sixth season under their first replacement for Ferguson. Instead, now that Jose Mourinho has been sacked, they’re about to begin the hunt for their fourth.
Indeed, while it’s perhaps not as interesting as the stuff that happens on the field, a lot of the story of United in this moment can be told through the contracts that the club spits out. Six years for Moyes, in the apparent belief that managerial dynasties can be written into being. An extension for Mourinho the moment the words “Paris,” “Saint,” and “Germain” appeared in the papers; one that has made his dismissal exponentially more expensive.
Players, too. All that money for Alexis Sanchez, none of the associated due diligence. And of course, most recently, a four-year extension for Chris Smalling, apparently on the basis of his aggressively middling performances. David de Gea and Anthony Martial, meanwhile, have yet to sign.
In conclusion, the richest club in the world has no idea what the hell to do with its money. We need to bear all of that in mind when it comes to thinking about Mourinho’s time at United. Managers have a difficult time functioning in dysfunctional circumstances. Not least because they, by virtue of those circumstances, might be the wrong appointment altogether.
But equally, it’s hard to argue that Mourinho, here in this moment, deserved more time. The raw numbers of United’s current league position are notable for their inadequacy: 19 points behind leaders Liverpool, and a goal difference of precisely zero. Add to that the eye test, and you have a team that is not just bad by the standards the club sets for itself, but boring; not just bad, but messy; not just bad but chronically disorganised.
Bad results can be forgiven, for a time at least, if there’s a promise that something good is round the corner: a plan in the making, a direction to things. A point, even in the absence of a few points. But United, for almost all of this season and the majority of the last, have seemed almost entirely reactionary, bouncing from one moment to the next. Something would work for a bit, then fail, then get abandoned for something else.
United have been cycling through formations, midfield configurations, attacking shapes, and other experiments for a while now, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the problem was deeper than Mourinho not knowing his best team. He didn’t even seem to know what he might want his best team to do.
And that’s without considering whether his players would even buy in to his ideas. According to the Mirror’s sources, “90 percent” of the squad had turned against him by the end. Presumably they all had their individual reasons, but the overriding image of his tenure has been yesterday’s man shouting at the footballers of today and tomorrow, then shouting again because they didn’t respond properly to the first round of shouting, then dropping everybody who had a bad game, or didn’t want to play through injury, or looked at him a bit funny. You’d imagine plenty of United’s squad, particularly the younger players, are feeling exceptionally relieved at the moment.
The jobs of managers and coaches are written into their titles: manage the team, coach the players. Make it function, make them better. If Mourinho had any useful ideas about how to do either of those things, they weren’t making it onto the pitch, and so he had to go. Firing him doesn’t solve any of the problems that weren’t his fault, and it won’t make Ed Woodward into anybody else, but it will at least buy United half a season to get the next appointment right.
It will also give them half a season to try and persuade those members of the squad that are good enough that there is reason for them to stay at Old Trafford and to have a bit of fun on the pitch. And, perhaps most importantly, to begin the process of finally turning this club into the modern, elite club it is pretending to be.
For nothing at United really works the way it should, with the exception of the sponsorship department. That may, for the Glazers, be a feature rather than a bug. But nevertheless, United need to start making gestures in the direction of competence, or else even the sponsors will start to look elsewhere. Mourinho’s dismissal is one of those gestures, done with a proactivity that has surprised some. It cannot be the last gesture.
Ultimately, by the time the final five months of Moyes’ projected tenure slip away, the club will need to be well on the path to a transformation into a club that doesn’t simply lurch desperately from each hero manager to the next. A club that would have looked at Jose Mourinho, and all that comes with him, and then looked elsewhere. A club that would never have handed out those cursed six years in the first place.
That’ll be the plan, anyway. No idea if this lot are going to be able to manage it.