It’s easy to blame Jose Mourinho for all of the current ills at Manchester United.
There appears to be a discord between the manager and his players. The football is stale and uninspiring. His mistreatment of some members of his squad has bordered on bullying and since his arrival at Old Trafford Mourinho has faced accusations of being out of touch with modern football.
He appears incapable of handling a younger generation of footballer and looks like he’s lost his touch. A trophyless season this year will only exacerbate that and the style of play is the cherry on top as far as his detractors are concerned.
On the other hand, just one glance at the starting back four for the FA Cup final shows that blaming Mourinho may well be shooting the messenger.
Valencia, Jones, Smalling and Young: that back four is a disgrace.
All four are Ferguson-era players, but only two of them were even Ferguson-era defenders. To have spent half a billion since his departure in 2013 and field that defence in a major cup final is staggering – and clearly not all down to Mourinho.
This season, the fact that his side have been solid at the back and turgid in attack does suggest a side playing ‘the Jose Mourinho way’. But for the moment he can at least make an argument that this is a tactical decision made out of necessity rather than an out-of-date philosophy.
United fans haven’t been treated to joined-up attacking football for years. Under Louis van Gaal, the aim was to keep possession of the ball, but the impotent nature of the sterile domination enjoyed by the Red Devils was at odds with the fans’ desire for a more direct game. It was a negative gameplan in that everything the Dutchman’s United side did was designed to minimise the risk of being caught on the counter-attack.
Under Mourinho, the football might seem boring in a different way – ‘Park the bus Man United’ – but the result is the same. It is risk-averse football that exposes the lack of trust between manager and players, even if it involves sitting deep rather than keeping hold of the ball just for possession’s sake: Mourinho simply doesn’t trust his defenders to hold their own on the counter if he lets his attackers off the leash.
In a sense, that’s why Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have looked so good this season. Mourinho has found a formula which lets both of those players excel in full-back roles because their defensive weaknesses are masked by the cautious system. That’s not to say both players haven’t been excellent for the club this season, but part of the reason they’ve looked so good is the fact that their manager has protected them. In a sense, the whole team is geared up to nullify their weaknesses.
And so despite the fact that United feel different now under Mourinho to what they did a few seasons ago under Van Gaal, the problems stem from exactly the same root.
Why? Because neither manager trusts what is exactly the same defence. They both had the same problem, and both are trying to work around it in particularly dull ways.
This isn’t to absolve Mourinho. He has bought players (or has at least been in charge when United have splashed the cash). Some of the signings are truly world class names, too. But he has created an environment where they certainly aren’t flourishing.
Of all his signings, only really Nemanja Matic has been a success. Some have been frozen out or underused (Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof). Others have simply played badly (Alexis Sanchez). Others still simply seem like poor fits for the manager (Paul Pogba).
But it feels so clear that Mourinho’s United are suffering the same problems that have been evident at the club for years. Maybe the buck stops at Mourinho for failing to address the problem adequately, but simply blaming the current manager for five years of recruitment failings seems too simple.
Surely United don’t need attacking players this summer, but rather a whole new defence.