Sunday 20 October 2019

Aidan Fitzmaurice: 'Mourinho sacking warranted but in so many ways, Man United have fallen behind'

Jose Mourinho has been sacked by Manchester United (Martin Rickett/PA)
Jose Mourinho has been sacked by Manchester United (Martin Rickett/PA)

Aidan Fitzmaurice

When Alex Ferguson began his work at Old Trafford, his stated aim was to "knock Liverpool off their f****** perch".

As Manchester United prepare to hire their fourth manager since the departure of Ferguson, no one is talking about knocking the likes of Liverpool or Manchester City off their perch, or even coming close to them.

The 2018 version of Manchester United, the parting legacy of Jose Mourinho, is a side looking down, not up. United are not title challengers and have not been for some time. In terms of points, they are on a par with the likes of Wolves, Everton and West Ham. Closer to getting relegated than to winning the Premier League. A goal difference of, well, zero after 17 league games.

Huddersfield Town, in the bottom two in the table, have conceded fewer league goals than Manchester United this season. In Ferguson's final season as manager, Huddersfield were four points away from being relegated to the third tier, now their defence is on a par with United's, one of the most expensive in Europe.

In so many ways, United have fallen. Fallen behind on the pitch, fallen in terms being competitive, with a style of play which makes their fans fall asleep.

That's why the issue facing that proud club today is not simply who their next manager will be. A bigger question is, what is Manchester United?

A lucrative cash-making outfit which no longer does what it's supposed to do, win football matches and win trophies? Is MUFC 2018 the sporting equivalent of the Elvis Presley estate, a body which somehow makes more and more money each year despite having nothing new to offer, living off the dreams of the deceased?

Do the club's US-based owners care that talk from the manager only a few days ago, that a fifth-place finish was now the aim, maybe the top four if possible, was soul-destroying for supporters to hear?

United lost their way on and off the field. Mourinho is to blame for large parts of that. He signed players with no advance planning of how he wanted to use them. While other coaches focused on their job, coaching players and making them into better footballers, Mourinho spread negativity in his wake. It cost the club the guts of €1million every week in wages and bonuses to have Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez as employees but Mourinho did not want to deploy them on the field of play.

But United as a club took their eye off the ball long, long ago. The money rolled in and was sent on to the US bank accounts of the Glazers. No one shouted stop because everyone (well, shareholders and directors and players on €200,000 a week) was making money off it.

Winning trophies was no longer the aim. Playing the attacking brand of football described as the "United way" wasn't even discussed. The less successful the team were, the more money the club made, a modern paradox to chill the bones of those who care about football.

United have been outpaced in so many ways: coaches like Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Unai Emery were streets ahead of Mourinho. His squad was shallow and inferior: as an example, how many of the current United squad, bar David de Gea and (possibly) Pogba would any of their main rivals want to sign if they were offered for sale?

They have lost ground in terms of attracting the best young talent, as the best youngsters in England now want to sign for the other team in Manchester.

For that, and for so many other reasons, the United board have to take on the blame for what's happened in the last few years.

United are still a global brand. As United supporters today engaged in verbal jostling with work-mates, neighgbours, friends, fellow bar flies (it's called bantz in the modern era), they will have reminded the smug fans of the current league leaders that Mourinho won more trophies in his time at United than the glorified Jurgen Klopp has done at Anfield. They will not enjoy being the butt of jokes but they will draw some comfort from the fact that the early morning sacking of their manager has set the news agenda right across the world. No other club would make headlines from the Faroes to Brisbane as United can. The shebeens and cafes of Cape Town and Shanghai were as energised by the United news as the pubs around Manchester.

Yet changing a manager won't cure all ills at this club. Mourinho was a cancer who infected the team and parts of the club. But to be in a position where they can see the perch, let alone think about knocking someone off it, they need to be more like Manchester United FC than MUFC PLC.

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