Wednesday 29 August 2018

Manchester United Now Need ZZ

Felix the Cat was a well-known comic strip cartoon in cinema in the early part of the 20th Century and featured the friendly feline in some entertaining adventures. Becoming very popular with movie goers during the silent movie era and then tragically faced a rather swift demise with the arrival of sound in the mid-1920’s. The arrival of new technology brought competition in the shape of a mouse and company called Disney. 

In Portugal in 1963 there was the arrival of José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix on the other side of the River Tagus from Lisbon, in the municipality of Setubal, a son to professional footballer Felix, and his wife Maria, the proud owner of one international cap for his country. Although his son Jose, would also play the game he was not good enough to make it in the professional ranks preferring as a result to focus on coaching at an early age instead. Manchester United is now Mourinho’s eighth club as manager. In the wake of United’s defeat to Brighton it looks as if he may need use of his ninth life as the club CEO, has emerged from the woodwork to offer the dreaded vote of confidence. 

However, it all should be of no surprise as Manchester United’s hiring record has been inconsistent historically in terms of managers. The exceptions being Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. The latter spared being shown the door by a handful when a run of 6 losses suddenly saw a win against Nottingham Forest and triggered a run to the FA Cup Final. The subsequent victory over Crystal Palace, albeit in the replay, was the start of Fergie’s career as we know it and now a major part of the club’s history. It all coming after three fruitless years with Ferguson under intense pressure as the 1989/90 season progressed as the club were without a league title since 1967. 

So, the FA Cup became the route to salvation as in those days as it also automatically earned qualification in the European Cup Winners Cup. Trophies then followed thick and fast as Ferguson captured the Premier League 11 times, the European Cup twice, the European Cup Winners' Cup, the Club World Cup, the FA Cup five more times and the League Cup four times. Although that legacy will never be surpassed any manager arriving at Old Trafford needs to live with that weight of history on his shoulders. 

Unfortunately, the real problem was that after such a lengthy stewardship there was a lack of succession planning, So Manchester United since 2013 are still trying to deal with post Fergie era and now on their fourth manager since he left. Indeed, living a turbulence more akin to a club such as Real Madrid, who following the summary departure of Vicente Bosque, saw ten managers in as many years arrive at the club. Yet despite all that upheaval – they since made modern footballing history - by winning three consecutive Champions League trophies.

A sign of the changing times of a post-Mourinho era at the Bernabeu as those victories came courtesy of just 2 and a half management changes; Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benítez and Zinedine Zidane. Albeit Rafa lasted only a quarter of season before he was let go with Zidane then promoted from within. A formula that made Liverpool Club successful when those in the famed boot room each stood up in the post Bill Shankly years. That saw Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran Roy Evans, Graeme Souness and Sir Kenny Dalglish

Indeed, it proved an internal production line that enabled Liverpool deliver success and minimise upheaval for decades. Something Manchester United failed to value once they went public in 2012 where the day to day footballing things ceased to be of the same value perhaps and big business, leveraged debt, commercial sponsorship became the main currency of choice. The commercial needs to reduce the debt of the Glaser family meaning financial investment types were the new Directors, and the arrival of as Ed Woodward in the top roles. 

Perhaps underinformed about those subtle workings of a football club perhaps but the key commercial decisionmaker all the same. With the hiring of Jose Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix one of those errors viewed from a neutral corner. The fact that Mourinho has straddled periods at both Real Madrid and United shows how far the man from Setubal has travelled in his eighteen years. On the other hand, it also highlights the contradictions of the man and his behaviour over the years, despite all the accumulated silverware over that time.

On the field he has more than proven his ability. Now as those days fade into history the fact remains his last league title was with Chelsea in 2014/15, and the las trophy at European level was the Europa League with Manchester United in his first full season, and the invincibility at Champions League level a distance back to the 2009/2010 with Inter Milan. All this decline on the field showing the limited value these days of “Parking the Bus” and it has been accompanied by some increased off the field histrionics also. Which saw him depart controversially from the Santiago Bernabeu, then part ways with his biggest patron twice, Roman Abramovich, and then secure the role at United despite misgivings of some the club stalwarts. Allegedly a key one being Sir Bobby Chariton, normally a good litmus test for all things good at United. 

In hindsight it seems that there were some reasons for such views and now Woodward - the enthusiastic proponent of Mourinho - is now having to resort to corporate speak to explain his star man’s increasingly unusual behaviour. Yet a sign of the times that the CEO bears a CV showing scant experience at managing mano-a-mano at a football club. An environment which is still somewhat Luddite in many of its activities and only guarantees the unpredictability of match results every weekend. Meaning the issues cannot be resolved by Pareto Charts, Budgets forecasts or net asset value calculations. 

Indeed, the only certainties about football is that players need to be paid - and those costs are rising every week - and managers come and go. Unfortunately, at United Mourinho currently seems to be moving from hero to zero and his every move now under increasing scrutiny as he fumbles to secure supposedly easily wins only weeks into the brand-new season. However, history tells us that Mourinho struggles in his third season anywhere and the noises out of Old Trafford suggest that he may be entering that familiar wind tunnel. This unrest often raising its ugly head once he signs a contract extension and as he seems to then almost seek a break up in order to sail off into the sun with his termination. 

In January Mourinho signed a contract extension committing his future to the club until 2020 with the option of another year. At Chelsea he signed a new four-year contract in August 2015 that would supposedly keep him at Stamford Bridge until 2019. But he was gone from the club within four months. That same articulateness that made Mourinho good newsfeed on his arrival to Chelsea – and the infamous Special One comment – is now rather tiresome and he would do better off to keep quiet and say very little. Both in victory or defeat. However, shorter news cycles these days and the social media thunderstorm seems to feed Mourinho’s addiction to offering some off the cuff remarks. So, these days he seems to relish the limelight more than ever and his quotes circle the sporting the world in seconds adding to his box office appeal apparently. 

Not unlike Sven Goran Eriksson, who initially was an intriguing interviewee with his thoughts sounding more plausible in his IKEA voiceover accent to an audience desperately desiring England’s footballing success. But when his off the field activities added spice to his aloof persona and the footballing department proved the lesser of his strengths, the end was only matter of time. Again, a demise coming at a high cost to the FA but lucrative for the Swede. Something that Jose has developed an adept expertise as his salary is reported to be almost double that of personal and professional arch-rival – Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Who quietly secured the Premier League in 2017/2018 and came close the previous season. Suggesting Ferguson didn’t wholeheartedly offer Pep the role at that famous dinner in Manhattan years ago. Fearing perhaps for his legacy by Pep’s possible arrival. Instead now, after a few successful seasons at Bayern, finally see the man managing on the blue side of the city. Although the truth was that Pep is more United’s speed and it proved an opportunity lost

What is not lost, and is on record at Real Madrid, was the way Mourinho intimated his intended departure from Madrid immediately after the 2013 Champions League defeat at the UEFA post-match press conference more or less. Despite signing a contract extension in January 2012 to keep him and his backroom staff at Real Madrid until 2016. It was his third consecutive exit in as many seasons from the Champions League and clearly failing to deliver the Holy Grail he promised president, Florentino Perez. 

Only securing one La Liga title in those three years – losing a number of Clasico’s to boot -but adding a fourth country to his own Palmarès in which to win such a League title. Following wins with Chelsea; FC Porto twice 2002 and 2003; Internazionale Serie A: 2008–09, 2009–10; and Real Madrid in 2011–12 he joined that small club that includes Carlo Ancelotti - the first manager to win titles in four of the 'big five' leagues, FC Bayern, AC Milan (2003/04), Chelsea (2009/10) and Paris St-Germain (2012/13); Ernst Happel, Tomislav Ivić and Giovanni Trapattoni.

The other matter - or elephant in the room – was the level of spending by Mourinho - yet never managing to resolve some of the key problems and overspending on players who were never the quality required to win the big matches. For instance, £25million on Fábio Coentrão who had Jorge Mendes as his agent, as did another £25million signing Ángel Di María; Ricardo Carvalho (£7million), José Callejón (£4million) and Diego López (£2.5million). He also bought Rafaël Varane (£8million) and German midfielders Mesut Özil (£12million) and Sami Khedira (£10million). With only the 2018 world cup medal winner, Varanne, still at the Madrid club. In addition, after Luka Modric was bought to the club from Tottenham Mourinho almost refused to play him until he had in option the Champions League meeting with United in 2013. Since that moment the Croatian midfielder has become indispensable to Real Madrid, yet never regarded as such by Mourinho funnily enough. All this created turmoil and since the departure of Mourinho eight seasons ago all that white noise has dissipated, and four champions leagues were won under just two different managers. The reign of Zinedine Zidane the essence of quiet focus off the field and inventive play on the field. 

Last season saw an early exit in the Champions League for United as Mourinho’s latest team were beaten by Sevilla in the round of last 16. Which any amateur coach would have predicted given the contrasting styles of the managers and now surely questions that supposed invincibility in the competition of the self-proclaimed Special One. An invincibility which had its origins in 2004, when a year after winning the UEFA Cup against Celtic in Sevilla, Porto steamrolled a strong Monaco side with fast and furious playing system. Good enough to attract the attention of the powers that be at Stamford Bridge. The other part to the Mourinho conundrum is the relationship with Jorge Mendes the so-called Super football agent, who worked on Mourinho's appointment as United manager as his fellow countryman heads up his own sports agency, GestiFut. It was in 2004 when Mendes first worked with Mourinho when the Porto boss joined Chelsea and was able to vastly enhance his profile as a result, with numerous Portuguese players signing up his services including Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferreira, Tiago and Maniche - all following Mourinho to Chelsea. 

The pair have continued to work together, with Mendes securing lucrative deals for Mourinho at Inter Milan, Real Madrid and on his return to Chelsea. Some of the players bought by Real Madrid for instance were not always highly rated or even well-known but represented by Mendes. A number of examples – Coentrão and Pepe - detailed in The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho y Diego Torres (translated by Pete Jenson). A depressing review of his time at Real Madrid in facts and figures. So as United announce they are to appoint a Director of Football - following Mourinho frustrations - on the lack of recruiting at Old Trafford over the summer, he has historically always has had difficulty with these roles over the years. So, he was surprisingly positive when Woodward announced the news. At Chelsea it was Denmark’s, Frank Arnesen; then at Real Madrid it was Argentinian world cup winner, Jorge Valdano. 

In fact, when United were considering Mourinho replace Louis van Gaal - and could have a £300m transfer fund - the former Danish international feared that Manchester United would be forfeiting their ideology: "Mourinho is very demanding and sometimes the players can't take it," Arnesen said. “He made some drastic changes [at Chelsea] and it cost him. In 2014 former Real Madrid General Manager, Valdano said Mourinho pales in comparison to Pep Guardiola. The former player and coach of the Madrid club - well positioned to opine – and coaching the club to the league title in 1995. In his book ‘The 11 Powers of a League’ Valdano explains

“He's a figure who is perfectly suited to these bombastic, shallow times. I couldn't understand him because he is in the antithesis of my sensitivity. Intelligence and ego are enemies. And when they collide, the ego wins.", Valdano continued "If Guardiola is Mozart, that makes Mourinho [Italian composer Antonio] Salieri. He would have been a great musician if Mozart had never existed. I've never heard him say a single thing about football worth remembering, whether in public or in private.

"He had one of the best squads in the history of Real Madrid. He always remained just outside the door of the Champions League. That was the big challenge which he did not manage to succeed at."

Then what about his famed relationship with the players and that so-called rapport. Well, aside from the early years of wielding magic at Porto and his next role at Inter winning the treble in his second season - in the shadow of AC Milan – it is somewhat sketchy. Indeed, currently at Old Trafford the record suggests otherwise with the unrest with Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial. 

As Mourinho seems to like upheaval it is contrasting approach to that of Pep is refreshing, as he praises his young players holding the fort in pre-season. At Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp was busy telling Nathaniel Clyne to put his family before football after the birth of his son recently. Meanwhile Mourinho is publicly questioning why Martial is not cutting short his time with his loved ones to return to work. Then post Russia 2018 as Pogba is being showered with praise from all corners of the globe, Mourinho’s first public contribution was to warn the Frenchman that he needed to bring all his form from back to the Premier League. The technique now tiresome, for fans, and so it must be for players who are new breed and no longer kowtowing to some of those older fashioned values.

Mourinho is unable seemingly to move from a basic formula that worked before, to a newer version of himself, and now looks and sounds like a dinosaur facing extinction. At the Bernabeu he lost the dressing room when he had issues with club captain and Spain world cup winning captain, Iker Casillas, a move that was his most ill-advised during his time at Real Madrid. In that sense any tales of unrest at United have a rather familiar ring. With the biggest names usually attracting the most negative attention. The standard Mourinho modus operandi. At Real it arose after when Casillas and Barcelona captain, Xavi, shared a common concern about the increasing aggression in the El Clasico with the two working together to find a solution. When Mourinho, found out he took exception and considered Casillas' actions as a sign of weakness and a betrayal. Always revelling in the "us against the world" dressing room atmosphere such a hallmark of Mourinho’s management style. From that moment the clock was ticking for Casillas at his alma mater and he eventually moved to Porto.

At Chelsea his contretemps with Eden Hazard in his second spell at Stamford Bridge, saw the former Chelsea team doctor Eva Carneiro receive the full wrath of Mourinho and to led her ultimately losing her job. Carneiro’s lawyer told the employment tribunal that she heard Mourinho, angered by her decision to go on the field that day, call her a “daughter of a whore” in Portuguese. The club eventually settled the claim and apologised “unreservedly” to Carneiro over the incident. Chelsea also accepted that Carneiro had done nothing wrong and was a “highly competent and professional sports doctor”. But by that time Mourinho had already been sacked as the Chelsea manager because of a “palpable discord with the players” according to the club’s technical director, Michael the time. It is this break down with players that seems a character flaw that flares up at every club he joins. It may also explain the underlying reason for some poor transfer decisions and that more often than not involve players who are enjoying very good spell or even at the peak at whatever club he arrives as manager. 

At Chelsea Juan Mata was sold soon only months after gathering a number of individual player awards in the Premier League and club honours. His arrival at Madrid following Manuel Pellegrini’s departure saw Raul and Guti – two club stalwarts – swiftly moved on with little fanfare or fuss. Arriving at United it was only matter of time before the club icon, Wayne Rooney, was offered a one-way ticket and he ow plays in the USA. Then the stories of selling Romalu Lukakau, Kevin de Bruyne suggest a trend of wanting also to buy rather than rely on patience to work with readymade squads. 

Then the treatment Eden Hazard and the constant criticism of the Belgian in early 2014 season - when the player was at the peak of his powers – was nothing short of bizarre. I nit disgraceful. A form coincidentally that Hazard never repeated until this summer’s world cup in Russia. Bonucci was deemed surplus at Inter and then went on to win six Serie A titles with Juventus. Even two seasons ago Bonucci was coveted by Guardiola who was ready to pay £43m before the defender penned a new four-year deal. Then Mohamed Salah moved to Liverpool from Roma returning to the Premier League after being previously loaned by Chelsea to Serie A side during Mourinho's second spell at Chelsea. Last season Mo won the PFA Players award and broke numerous goal scoring records. 

The reality maybe that Mourinho is finding all this hard to accept and the timely reminders of former players succeeding may be irritating. Also, he now has to watch some of the younger guns coming up the management ranks and attracting some of his media space. His football style no longer earning the same plaudits, or enthralling fans and his message now rather repetitive, sounding self-absorbed and rather stale. The arrival of Klopp at Liverpool, his nemesis Guardiola succeeding in the same city, never mind the same league, and then a new face at Arsenal to perhaps add more competition and steal some newspaper column inches. 

All this as United suffered a disastrous season last year as Manchester City took the Premier League title, Liverpool reaching the Champions League Final and Chelsea winning the FA Cup. Back in February Bristol City knocked the Reds out of the EFL Cup and leaving a very empty trophy cabinet for United to polish. Not forgetting defeat in the Champions League in the last 16. Leaving Mourinho a sultry and cranky figure facing into a new season which started with that defeat to Brighton. 

No longer, able for the moment, to wield his magic as he did once upon a time. Even after buying the world ‘s costliest player in Pogba. – with whom he still seems unable to get the best out of as yet. Yet anyone watching what the player in Russia for France knows the player is not the issue. 

Therefore, it made perfect sense this week to hear the name of Zinedine Zidane linked as an option for Manchester United should Mourinho be moved on early. In all his last four managerial roles the self-appointed Special One has not stayed a full three years; at Milan it was two years before accepting the lure of Real Madrid just moments after winning the Champions League for the Italian club. He stayed just three years at the Bernabeu when Abramovich offered an escape route to London. But then Mourinho did not even make his third Christmas party with the Blues. Now all eyes are on him again given he arrived at United in May 2016 and is now just starting his third season.

On his arrival the club Woodward explained the decision: “José is quite simply the best manager in the game today,” the executive vice chairman said. “He has won trophies and inspired players in countries across Europe and, of course, he knows the Premier League very well, having won three titles here. I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome him to Manchester United. His track record of success is ideal to take the club forward.” In recent weeks those words have become vacuous waffle as Woodward and Mourinho seemingly having difficulty even talking to each other according to some reports. 

But if Jose leaves he will be using his ninth life and if Zidane is the choice he has to leave a life he enjoys in Madrid with his Spanish wife. A move to England may not be on his agenda as the language is not one of his strongest. But these days with private jets family mobility is much easier for high flying footballers or managers. Indeed, Rafael Benitez during his time at Napoli and Madrid never moved the family from the Wirral. Maybe even still hasn’t through his time at Newcastle. And Mourinho stays at The Lowry while his family live in the London home and never moved to Manchester.

Yet if United are serious about restoring their legacy then Zidane is the manager to lead that effort, as he is low on histrionics and high on achievement. Both as a player - bar the world cup final against Italy in berlin ) and now with a rookie managerial CV that would rival some of the greats of the game already. His low-key nature is exactly what the game needs at Manchester United and would be good news for investors, the share price and the overall value as a brand. Although Zidane wanted a break from the game if the right offer comes along things change. Similar to Klopp, who despite being on a break from football took the call when it came from Fenway Sports Management to join Liverpool.

Looks like Mourinho maybe using his ninth life sooner than planned. 

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