When you’re in a hole, stop digging: That’s the strategy Manchester United is pursuing by sacking Jose Mourinho.
Ditching the manager midseason, a risky move with no successor in place, became necessary not simply because results on the pitch have been bad but because the 55-year-old’s negativity was making United tough to admire and even tougher to watch, threatening the bottom line of the ever-growing globalized business.
Grumpy. Toxic. Whiny. Defeatist. Words that have sprung to mind in Mourinho’s plummet to mediocrity this season also risked washing off onto the United brand. At a time when the club is facing more intense competition than ever — for fans, for revenue and for results on the field — from both established rivals and other teams fueled by foreign money like Manchester City, United couldn’t wait around for Mourinho to get his mojo back.
Mourinho and United always seemed like an odd couple. Their union in 2016 was one of convenience, not a meeting of minds.
United wanted a big name. Serial trophy winner Mourinho was as big as they come.
For the coach who accumulated silverware in Portugal, Italy, Spain and in two spells at Chelsea, United offered a stage unmatched in size — it turned its greatest managers into legends, like Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson.
But United and Mourinho also made compromises that 2½ years later fed into their separation, announced in a terse, pro-forma, three-sentence statement from the team on Tuesday.
By hiring the tactical pragmatist who has always prioritized results over style and has zero qualms about winning ugly, United made its supposed love of attractive and attacking football ring hollow.
Mourinho-ball was accepted, but not revered, in the first two seasons at Old Trafford only because it delivered two trophies (Europa League, League Cup) and a face-saving runner-up spot in the Premier League behind cross-town rival City in 2018.
But the turgid gruel served up by Mourinho’s deflated team this season wasn’t worthy of the so-called “Theater of Dreams,” where the likes of George Best are still spoken of with wonder and where many remember the heady days not long ago when Ferguson built a legacy that Mourinho will now never come anywhere close to matching.
The compromise Mourinho made, which eventually proved fatal for him, was agreeing to work for a club that was never going to let him do everything his own way. Perhaps the self-described “Special One” imagined that, with time, he’d eventually be able to compel United and its players to follow his every command and that, like Ferguson, he would be able to buy, sell and bench whom he liked.
But those days ended with Ferguson.
As Mourinho lost his power struggles with the United board, getting some but not all of the players he wanted, he cut an increasingly frustrated, lonely and unsympathetic figure. Yes, he had players out injured and, yes, the United squad could, in an ideal world, always be strengthened with additional purchases. But it was hard to feel too sorry for Mourinho given the expensive stars he still had at his disposal.
As the weeks wore on in what has become the worst-ever start for United in the Premier League , it became ever clearer that Mourinho, not his players, was the biggest problem. They were no longer responding to his abrasive style and public criticism, and weren’t busting a gut for United as Ferguson’s teams did. Midfielder Paul Pogba, a World Cup-winner this July for France, came to symbolize Mourinho’s squandering of expensive talent. He was stripped of the United captaincy and benched again in what proved to be Mourinho’s last match in charge, a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool.
Changing tack so dramatically midseason could backfire. It assumes that the players will pick themselves up and respond better to the temporary manager that United says will oversee the team until the end of the season while it hunts for a successor to Mourinho.
But leaving Mourinho in place, for United to go backward while City goes from strength to strength under Pep Guardiola and Liverpool thrills with Juergen Klopp, could have been riskier still.
The hole was only getting deeper. The digger had to be stopped.