Fallout: Jose Mourinho's sacking
Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by NC-SA 4.0
The 10-megaton bomb dropped on Tuesday morning. Jose Mourinho was sacked. We all believed it had to happen. None of us thought it would. Not this soon. Not until summer at least. With Ed Woodward in charge, maybe not even then. But it has.
Now that the initial shockwave has passed, nuclear winter sets in on Old Trafford. United faithful shift their uncertainty and trepidation from knowing who's in charge to wondering who comes in next season. For the most part, everyone is talking about Mauricio Pochettino or Zinedine Zidane. A few have other names in mind.
No one is sparing a thought for the casualties Mourinho's exit leaves behind. What will happen to the players and staff? In most cases, the answer depends on whether Mourinho's so-called permanent replacement is another conservative tactician or one with an aggressive philosophy. United have been through three bosses in less than six seasons who each believed in building from a solid defensive foundation. Maybe it's time to give a more adventurous soul an opportunity. Certainly, the team's transfer policy provides a positive-thinking boss sufficient ammunition to light up the Premier League. Even better, few among the Red Devils squad crossed over to the dark side to help Darth Jose build a new empire.
Admittedly, the Special One gave United supporters a few thrills. An EFL Cup and Europa League in his first campaign made for a beautiful false dawn. Exciting fight-backs against Newcastle, Juventus, Southampton and Arsenal during his death throes gave his true believers hope. In the end, however, the Portuguese left the club as he left every other: broken, adrift, uncertain.
So, let's consider what lies ahead for those left behind.
With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arriving as caretaker manager, most of Mourinho's coaching retinue follow their boss out the door. For now, at least, goalkeeping coach Emilio Alvarez remains as do Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick. Former Sir Alex Ferguson assistant and Hull manager Mike Phelan joins the staff.
Even if the next permanent boss goes the David Moyes route, bringing in a full staff with him rather than keeping any from the previous regime, Carrick and McKenna deserve a half-season under Solskjaer to display their wares, as it were. Both joined the staff this season when Rui Faria departed. As someone who sat beside Mourinho for 17 years, the longtime number two may have had the foresight to abandon a sinking ship but you can't blame Carrick and McKenna for clambering up the gangway at the last minute to board the Titanic.
Retaining goalkeeper coach Alvarez is intriguing. Did David de Gea previously communicate his enthusiasm for working with the Spaniard? United has long been seeking a renewed commitment from La Roja's No.1. In the course of those negotiations, De Gea may have been surveyed about his happiness with the coaching staff. If Alvarez was kept for that reason, it gives Ed Woodward a small but significant bargaining chip when the parties come to the table again.
During Mourinho's tenure, noise was made about talented individuals lacking a team mentality. If I bought into that talk fully, I'd have to address the squad one at a time. However, we all know there were cliques within the squad, players who got on well with one another on the pitch and, in some cases, off. That makes it easier to break them down into groups. For me, there are three.
Good Teammates Elsewhere
It was a World Cup year, which hurt Mourinho's ability to prepare his squad for the 2018/19 season. Most were on holiday when the club began its American tour. Alexis Sanchez's tax-evasion plea deal, which involved a felony conviction, held up his US visa. Anthony Martial, who did not go to Russia, left the squad for the birth of his child then tarried in Paris out of concern for the mother, throwing wood on the fire between manager and player. Antonio Valencia's injury inspired another one-sided row when Mourinho attempted to bully Ashley Young into cutting his holiday short. The veteran fullback had the good sense to keep his phone turned off.
During the tournament in Russia, however, Mourinho served as an analyst for Russian television. When France played he only had encouraging words for Paul Pogba's performance. He saw a player working for the team, competing, giving his all and hoped it would continue in Manchester. It didn't. There will be an Oasis reunion before Pogba and Mourinho win another trophy together.
When reporters asked Didier Deschamps how he coaxed so much from Pogba the World Cup-winning boss replied the midfielder was "happy" when in the squad. At Juventus, Massimiliano Allegri would have competitive kickabouts with his precocious talent after practices. Both bosses understood Pogba's playful personality and used it to draw the best from him. Mourinho doesn't play. The rift between them is that simple. Pogba is United's most talented player. Solskjaer and his eventual successor must create the light-hearted atmosphere in which he thrives.
The Frenchman wasn't the only struggling United player who found form with his national team. Romelu Lukaku scored four goals in the World Cup. Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard regularly make an impact with the Three Lions. United can hire whoever they like but all the evidence points to a boss with a more convivial personality than Mourinho or Louis van Gaal.
The Over-the-Hill Gang
Manchester United's roster contains several players who fans complain have overstayed their welcome. Of course, that's a traditional complaint for United supporters as Wayne Rooney will attest. As a group, though, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Marouane Fellaini range in age from 30-33. Chris Smalling is 29. Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones are just 28 and 26 respectively but time on the trainer's table apparently counts for double.
While each has their positive attributes, all lack the pace and, save for Mata, the creativity to satisfy the discerning United palate. The feeling is the entire group should make way for younger, more energetic players.
Matic, Young, Fellaini and Valencia were all Mourinho favourites for their consistency. Smalling and Jones were players he turned to when he had little choice. Jose loved Rojo, as well, until injury shelved him for the better part of a year. Solskjaer, who can't expect to be too active in the January window, will give them all a look and likely use them, if in smaller roles than they're accustomed. Fellaini and Smalling's contract extensions offer the pair job security, if not playing time. The rest of the group may want to assign their agents to reconnaissance duty. Any or all could be looking for new clubs at season's end.
Matteo Darmian also fits into this category but when you rarely appear in Mourinho's lineup, why would you be in the one here? Even though he is defensively sound, the Italian was seldom on the pitch for his defensive-minded coach. His attacking limitations won't endear him to a boss with a more open philosophy. More recon.
Although only at the club a short while, Alexis Sanchez pigeonholes best in this category. When he recovers from his hamstring, he should figure into Solskjaer's plans unless his mind is made up to seek a new opportunity even with Mourinho gone.
Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford have nothing to worry about. Their status as homegrown prodigies and England internationals kept them in the squad through three different managers. A fourth and fifth won't change that.
Although Ander Herrera was not a Carrington cadet, his undying love for the club has made him an adopted son. He can consider Mourinho's time a storm weathered, as well.
Scott McTominay isn't quite in that category. While appreciated by fans, his talent isn't to the level of Lingard and Rashford's. He may be destined to follow the same road taken by Michael Keane, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe.
Ole Gunnar will likely give Andreas Pereira every opportunity to impress. Luke Shaw faces a different test, avoiding the temptation to relax without a brutal taskmaster cracking the whip.
The easiest assumption to make is that Ed Woodward is safe. The Glazers ownership seems predicated on revenue rather than a commitment to winning. Ed is a marketing specialist. He's made the club's most marketable player happy by removing the manager who wouldn't work with or play him. He appears to be doing everything possible to keep his world-class goalkeeper. Best, he can claim he's proactive by finally making a managerial change just when everyone had given up on him pulling the trigger. Despite having burned through three increasingly qualified managers, there's no visible pressure on him from above.
On the other hand, there's the less visible kind. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, already and still gainfully employed by Norwegian powerhouse Molde FK, has arrived on loan to help clean up Ed's mess. Solskjaer scored what might be Manchester United's most famous goal, the Champions League winner against Bayern that capped an amazing reversal of a 1-0 deficit at the death. He did so coming off the bench for Sir Alex Ferguson.
Solskjaer is bringing in former Ferguson assistant Mike Phelan to be his number two. He's retaining the two United stalwarts from Mourinho's coaching staff, recently retired playing legend Michael Carrick and former United U18s coach Kieran McKenna.
When Sir Alex retired following the 2012/13 season, he purposely stepped aside in every way. While nominally a member of the board, he allowed Ed Woodward to run the club without interference. He was understood to have opposed Mourinho's appointment but Ed ignored his advice. The Glazers are primarily concerned with revenue but aren't so stupid as to realise a club must be successful to be marketable. Could it be they feel Woodward requires some oversight on the football side? The caretaker arrangement has Fergie written all over it.
It would be daft to think the man himself is coming back after a serious health issue. But if he is at least putting a word in, if not a hand, it should be a welcome sign for United faithful tired of a beaten club when they can still remember being the ones to beat.
Mourinho said it best. United has a future without him and he without it. That said, if United wants a future, it's not a bad idea to draw upon its past.
The Man Himself
You know Mourinho will find a willing partner. Ed Woodward is sneaky powerful but even he can't turn the Special One into David Moyes. Serie A will take him far away from his English troubles but would it be far enough? Positive play has found its way even to Lega Calcio. It wouldn't surprise me if Jose remains in England, feeling he has a point to prove.
For some reason, Newcastle sticks in my mind when I imagine where he might go, even though he would be at war with Mike Ashley from day one.
Maybe it's because Rafa Benitez has followed him to three clubs [resist, United, resist]. At Inter and Real Madrid, Rafa didn't last the season. The Spaniard won a Europa League under hostile conditions at Stamford Bridge but Jose returned to win the Premier League, allowing his third finger to alleviate some of the pressure on the middle one in press conferences. It seems appropriate to my sense of irony that Mourinho travel to Geordieland to show his old enemy how it's done.
In addition, the North East is where his mentor finished his career. Sir Bobby Robson managed the Magpies from 1999-2004. Mourinho is a man rooted in the past. It makes sense. After all this, something should.