Under Sir Alex Ferguson it was the Theatre of Dreams. Under David Moyes it was the Theatre of Nightmares. And for the last three years, it’s been the theatre of the kind of mundane mid-slumber musings like trying to pay for a coffee but being unable to find your wallet that make you wake up and realise you’re an incredibly boring person whose imagination died the moment you left university to undertake a nine-to-five living at the local branch of Lloyds.
Last night summed up Jose Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford. An unspectacular performance lined with plenty of hustle-and-bustle but lacking cutting edge quality as the away side stuck every man behind the ball and Manchester United relentlessly struggled to break them down. The consequence of Everton’s rearguard display was the Red Devils’ ninth home draw of the season; marooning them to an incredibly underwhelming tenth place in the Premier League’s home table and further chipping away at their increasingly decreasing chances of qualifying for the Champions League via a top four finish.
The ‘boring, boring’ boo-boys who grew steadily louder throughout Louis van Gaal’s two terms as Manchester United manager are yet to truly emerge with the same force and conviction. But the murmurings of discontent are still bubbling under the surface, and pundits have been quick to criticise the culmination of disappointing home performances this season, contrasting so sharply with United’s prestigious history of demolishing sides at Old Trafford with ferocious attacking play. It used to be a case of teams simply turning up in Manchester, closing their eyes and hoping it would all be over quickly.
But United’s critics are forgetting the golden rule when it comes to Jose Mourinho; it’s all about the second season. During his second term at FC Porto, Mourinho guided the Portuguese giants to a shock Champions League title; his second campaign at Real Madrid brought the only La Liga title of his Bernabeu tenure; year two at Inter Milan led to a Champions League-included treble; and the second seasons of both of his Chelsea tenures produced Premier League titles.
It’s too simplistic to say history will repeat itself simply because it has done before; if football was that predictable, the bookies would be out of pocket and it wouldn’t be the most popular and most romanticised sport in the world. But there is a clear pattern throughout Mourinho’s career, even if the trophies have begun to dry up a little, and for all of United’s tribulations this season – especially at home – there are signs the Portuguese has his new club on the same path.
When Mourinho returned to Chelsea in summer 2013, his main goal in the transfer market was to transform the spine of a team that protruded style over substance. From back to front, by the time Chelsea lifted the Premier League title two years later, Thibaut Courtois, Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa had all been brought into the starting XI – and all five were crucial as the Blues lifted their fourth Premier League honour.
We’ve already seen evidence of the same process at Manchester United, with centre-back Eric Bailly, midfielder Paul Pogba and striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic arriving last summer to completely change the spine Mourinho inherited from Van Gaal. It’s not transformed United’s results just yet, but the process may not be complete; Matic moved back to Stamford Bridge in the January window of his first season back, whilst Fabregas, Courtois and Costa came in during Mourinho’s second summer.
That suggests further spine additions will be made in the coming window, to help evolve United into a true Mourinho side. Another centre-back, a long-term successor to Michael Carrick and a No.10 are likely to be on the agenda.
But perhaps more important than who comes in is the players Mourinho will get rid of to try and shape the culture in the dressing room and the philosophy of his team. Flashy players and those with questionable work ethics like David Luiz, Juan Mata, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Andre Schurrle were all moved on before Chelsea clinched the title in 2015. United’s current squad is unrivalled in its vastness throughout the Premier League, so who Mourinho chooses to keep and expel this summer could have a massive impact on not only United’s quality next season, but the mentality throughout the squad as well.
Of course, Mourinho’s transition season at Chelsea went far better than his first term at United has gone thus far. Whilst the Blues finished four points off the top, killed Liverpool’s title bid and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, the Red Devils are on course to finish outside of the top four, although they have made considerable progress in the cup competitions, and are two points behind where they were after 29 games during Van Gaal’s debut season.
But Mourinho’s return campaign at Chelsea also drew criticisms of dissonant football in comparison to Liverpool and Manchester City, who both scored over 100 goals. More crucially, the Premier League has changed drastically since that point. Mourinho described his Blues side as the small horse in a three-horse title race in February 2014; this season started with six evenly-matched, equally uncertain juggernauts all eyeing the English crown, not to mention Leicester City representing potential dark horses.
So does that mean Manchester United’s second season will unquestionably breed a Premier League title? Of course not; there will be six sides competing yet again next season and only one can win it. That doesn’t necessarily mean those who miss out are worse teams with worse managers, just that the thin margins of the beautiful game didn’t swing their way.
But it does suggest United will be much closer to becoming a genuine Mourinho side, United will be much closer to the division’s summit than they are this season, and they’ll be a much more enjoyable team to watch. This year may not be a stellar campaign in the context of the club’s illustrious history, but its clear Mourinho is already laying out the foundations for United to return to the big time with a bang.