Football Taught By… Jose Mourinho

Whether or not you felt he was the right man for the job, there was no denying that Jose Mourinho was as destined to manage Manchester United as one man could be. It could be said that the way it all ended was equally inevitable.

The truth is that there were probably at least two occasions where Mourinho could have been hired earlier than he was. The first was in the summer of 2013.

We may never know how likely it would have been, because there have been denials from all sides, but the strongest argument to support a healthier version of a Mourinho era is the one that exists had he taken over in 2013.

A manager with such a history of winning would have had more respect (a little, at least, and only in theory, we must remember) for the quality of the squad he was inheriting. He would also have made – through sheer bullishness – the move from Real Madrid to Manchester United look like a step up, which the club desperately needed that summer after the retirement of Ferguson.

It didn’t happen.

Chance number two came in the winter of 2015, just after he had been sacked by Chelsea. Louis van Gaal was on the brink. As Leicester and Tottenham seemed to spend Christmas offering a title challenge to the other, the Premier League still seemed winnable for a team with ambition. Ed Woodward, however, decided to delay the inevitable, and the club were arguably set back 18 months as Van Gaal failed to deliver Champions League football.

He did, however, win an FA Cup, and give British football Marcus Rashford – who may not have broken through in another circumstance.

Mourinho was hired as Van Gaal was dismissed right as he won the FA Cup, and so began an era of rollercoasters. I write this as someone who, embracing its inevitability, welcomed the Mourinho era.

Mourinho’s star power was at play – as was his decision to plunge the club into a relationship with Mino Raiola – to attract Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to the club, as well as Eric Bailly.

After an indifferent start with three defeats in the first eight league games, United settled, and went unbeaten in the league from October right through to May. In that run of games, Wayne Rooney became the record goalscorer in the club’s history, but by now he was being used sparingly and was being nudged toward the exit door.

United stood one point behind the top four with six games remaining. They were also in the latter stages of the Europa League. Mourinho made a gamble – he would rest players in the league, feeling there was a better chance of success (success being the byword for Champions League qualification) with winning the European competition.

Like Wario, Mourinho won, but at what cost?

United defeated Ajax in the Europa League – to add to the League Cup Final won in fortuitous circumstances against the better team three months earlier – but the idea that United’s players could afford to take some games easier than others was going to be a mental barrier Mourinho would struggle to turn around.

In the celebrations, the manager instructed his players to raise three fingers in reference to the three ‘trophies’ they’d won that season – the Community Shield being counted among them.

In his second summer Mourinho signed Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof, with the idea that the spine of the team would be strengthened and Paul Pogba – who had been hot and cold – might be liberated to cause more damage.

A transfer pursuit of Ivan Perisic was reportedly binned for the sake of around £6m – which left many wondering why Lukaku was signed, considering there wouldn’t be a natural supply line to him.

The early weeks of the season saw United score four on six occasions but they were rarely good to watch in the main. There was always the sense that they were a spark away from a great side – despite conceding just 28 goals, many of the ones they did concede seemed avoidable. Despite signing a player to ‘unlock’ Pogba, there seemed a growing frustration with where the Frenchman’s best position was supposed to be.

Mourinho was given a new contract in January but United lost 2 in 3 which meant Manchester City – with Pep Guardiola and endless cash and squad turnover – were runaway leaders. United saved face by turning a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win in the derby which would have sealed the title, but then United summed up their problems by losing 1-0 at home to West Brom the next week to hand it them anyway.

Draws against the so-called smaller sides were probably compounded by the lack of winning mentality in the squad. Mourinho, previously, had been an expert in injecting this, but had made a dent by suggesting some league games were not as important as others in the previous campaign.

Champions League qualification had almost been pointless – painful defeat to Sevilla was followed by Mourinho saying that he was more successful than his club in the competition.

United finished a distant second but got to the FA Cup Final – it was decided by an early penalty by Eden Hazard.

United’s entire back five on the day had been signed by Sir Alex Ferguson more then seven years earlier, even though at least two full defences had been bought and another full defence had been allowed to leave in the mean-time. Lukaku, Mourinho’s big buy, had been on the bench, while Mkhitaryan had been let go after 18 dismal months.

The Armenian was used as the makeweight in a transfer swap deal which brought Alexis Sanchez to Old Trafford.

A good player at Arsenal, he had sulked because he wanted a move to City, and United’s acquisition of him came at a time where their left side competition between Martial and Rashford was their best feature.

It was not entirely Sanchez’s fault, of course, but his extraordinary wages meant he had to be persisted with, and probably made him the worst transfer the club ever made in terms of how difficult it made every other signing, and every contract renegotiation with a player who could rightly claim to have made a better impression than the Chilean.

United’s need for improvement was obvious. They needed two centre-halves, but Woodward, having already given Mourinho two, refused to sanction another. Following the Perisic disagreement of the previous year, there was a very obvious frosty public relationship on the pre-season tour of America in 2018.

Most managers continue to work with dignity and professionalism even under such difficult conditions.

The start to the league season was disastrous. Mourinho started changing formations, including putting Scott McTominay or Ander Herrera in a 3 man backline. The defence was all over the place in three goal capitulations to Brighton, Spurs and West Ham.

The wins, when they came, were unimpressive. Defeat to City in November had United as far away from challenging as they’d ever seemed.

Mourinho now seemed to be alienating even the players he’d signed. Sanchez was on the periphery. In a draw at Southampton, the manager reportedly described Pogba as a ‘virus’ in front of his team mates.

If there had been any good achieved by the manager in terms of a winning attitude and defensive organisation, he had contributed to the dismantling of it more than anyone.

The hopes were that he would have been the manager to complete the transition. Instead, his tenure made things even worse than the one he had inherited – the strange, disconnected transfer activity had continued with few success stories and much collateral damage.

It could be argued that United needed two centre-backs, meaning the two he had brought in weren’t good enough. There could be at least as much blame on the manager as the player for the ill-suited transfer of Pogba, considering how inconsistent he had been. Mkhitaryan wasn’t playing regularly at all and was sold within 18 months. Fred barely played, neither did Dalot. Lukaku, despite still managing to score goals, looked a poor fit, and almost unrecognisable from the striker the club had bought, bulky and with a poor touch. It was clear that he would have to move on and there would have been many preparing themselves that a big financial hit would have to be taken.

And the signing of Sanchez was the biggest disaster of all, first on the playing side with both his own poor form and the sidelining of more in-form players, and arguably even more significantly with the contract which was destined to create a major issue for whoever would follow Mourinho.

It was clear that continuing with the manager was only going to end disastrously but it seemed that he would be given until the end of the season, considering the newness of his contract extension. However, following a dismal defeat at Liverpool, enough was seemingly enough – Mourinho was sacked a few days before Christmas.

By the time of his departure only David de Gea – a Ferguson signing – could be sure that he had a nailed down first team place and a future at the club. Two and a half years in and there was no guarantee of anyone else being a regular in a regular position, a significant reason for the instability, and with there being no clear style of play to go along with it, the contractual mess, and the low morale, this was by a considerable distance the lowest ebb the club had wallowed in since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

Major Decisions and Transitions

The theory was that he had inherited a decent squad from Van Gaal, considering the new young blood in the team and the fact they’d just won a trophy. The truth was they were in the midst of transition and Mourinho’s reign, far from resolving that period, merely extended and complicated it further.

Wayne Rooney’s exit was handled with surprising diplomacy, and Michael Carrick quietly retired to join the coaching staff, but other than that, there were no significant outgoing which were particularly acrimonious.

Van Gaal’s squad was populated heavily with players who just weren’t right for the club and although Pogba and Ibrahimovic both were (at least in theory), Mourinho’s signings were rarely better. The only thing you could say is that there was generally – Sanchez aside – a practical theory behind a player signing, but there would always be one reason, or more, letting the club down.

It could be the difficulty in finding the best role for Pogba, or Mata. The over reliance on Fellaini as a plan B or even sometimes a plan A. The decision to give the manager a contract and not back him with his chosen targets in the summer. The pragmatism of the play. The unreliability of the defenders he had signed. The toxicity which invaded the club to such poisonous effect in the last six months.

It was a surprise he was dismissed when he was – an indictment of everything that was off about the club at that period in time, but it was necessary in order to rapidly press the reset button, even if it was leaving an almighty mess for his successor.


It started as a 4-2-3-1 with Rooney behind Ibrahimovic but it was difficult to see how such a system would continue with Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Rashford and Martial vying for positions in the team.

Mourinho changed to a flat 4-3-3 against Arsenal at home as he tried to find a way to win without the absent Ibrahimovic but it was 4-2-3-1 again after that. Against Chelsea in April 2017, Mourinho went to a 3-5-2 shape, and United put in one of their best performances for years, with Herrera following Hazard all over the pitch.

The Europa League final was a 4-3-3 – Mkhitaryan was no longer used as a number 10, but at least he scored from a wide left position for his best moment in a red shirt. In fairness, on that occasion against Ajax, United did control the tempo of the game against a good and improving Dutch side.

However, they progressively became reactive under Mourinho (an ostensible contradiction if ever there was one). The signing of Lukaku necessitated a move back to 4-2-3-1 but Pogba and Matic did not ever seem to be a good blend after Matic’s strong start – and furthermore, the defence which had ill-suited combinations never quite seemed well-connected to the midfield in front of them.

The FA Cup Final in 2018 saw a 4-3-3 with Herrera, one of the middle three, sacrificed for a man-marking job that was pointless with Jones and Smalling – asked to play in a final some years after it was clear they were out of favour – in defence. Jones fouled Hazard, who scored the penalty, and United pondered their way to defeat.

Mourinho’s team-shapes at the start of the following season almost seemed like petulant public arguments with Ed Woodward. The 3-0 defeat against Spurs saw a 3-5-1-1 shape with Herrera as a right-sided central defender alongside Smalling and Jones.

Mostly, he played a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, and although his last few weeks saw no fewer than four last minute winners, it was not an indication of things going right.

Mourinho had become increasingly aware of the fragility of the defence and although he contributed to its afflictions at times, he had a point – most of them needed to be replaced, and even Luke Shaw, the most talented of that selection with the most to offer, was close to the exit due to his confidence being on the floor.

Whilst most people associate United with a 4-4-2, it’s also fair to say that this was only really the case when the shape was most common across the country. Shapes have changed throughout history. Busby’s first Babes side, for example, was a 3-2-3-2 and his European Cup winners played a 4-3-3.

So the issue with Mourinho’s style of play was not in an abandoning of a particular shape, but more the simple fact that there was an inherent incompatibility with any philosophy of how he thought the game should be played and Busby’s ideals back in the 1940s. Crucially, and perhaps this was partly a consequence of the way the club was run, by the end he didn’t know any of his best XI, and even at his prior worst Mourinho usually had a favoured group of players that would always play. At his best, the first eleven would pick themselves.

The one trait he shared with the club’s vision was that desire to win – but it was clear that if that was the only shared quality, when it came to the crunch of transition, there wasn’t much else to say this was worth persisting with.

There was nothing especially innovative about Mourinho’s tactics – he was, occasionally, able to stifle games, and even to an extent control them, but not in the same way as ten or even five years earlier. United were now reactive in big games and usually lucky to get away with a draw when they did.

In the games where United won – and even when they scored a few goals – rarely could you say they entertained for decent periods, which, considering the forward players at their disposal, was a crying shame.

Four years of having instinct drilled out of them left United’s players looking ponderous and incapable of breaking down a defence that was even remotely resolute. Pragmatism had prevailed.


First team

De Gea, Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Shaw, Carrick, Fellaini, Lingard, Rooney, Martial, Ibrahimovic

Subs : Herrera, Mata, Rojo, Rashford, Schneiderlin, Mkhitaryan

Last team

De Gea, Darmian, Bailly, Lindelof, Dalot, Herrera, Matic, Young, Lingard, Rashford, Lukaku

Subs : Fellaini, Martial, Mata

Most memorable game

In spite of it all, the Europa League final has to remain the positive memory of the Mourinho by far. In football terms it completed the set in terms of trophies available for United to win, standing as it does as a successor to the UEFA Cup, technically.

In human terms, the bombing of the Manchester Arena a few days earlier had united the city, making the whole event a much more emotional experience than it would have been.

The atmosphere in Sweden was magnificent as United won 2-0.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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