“I sit in this chair twice in the Champions League and knock out Manchester United at home at Old Trafford. I sit in this chair with Porto and Real Madrid with Manchester United out, so I don’t think it is something new for the club.”
These are not the words that any fan would want to hear in the immediate aftermath of being knocked out of Europe’s premier club competition. And so, there is little wonder that United fans are upset with their manager Jose Mourinho’s remarks that claim that a European exit is “nothing new” for the club.
One can try and understand what Mourinho was trying to say, but it is clear that he got the phrasing horribly wrong.
Mourinho has an inflated ego, and he tends to take everything personally. But it is this characteristic that all his success has been founded on. And it is precisely this quality that United were hankering after, following three years of mediocrity under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal.
So when Mourinho here refused to accept responsibility for the defeat against Sevilla and the Round of 16 exit for Manchester United, instead highlighting not just the dire straits that the club has been in Europe in recent years but also touching on the under achievements of the past, that too should be expected – even if distasteful.
But the question more critical than Mourinho’s choice of words is whether or not he still is the man to take United where they want to be.
Before answering that, the club needs to first ask itself where exactly do they want to be in the near future, which more often than not means the very next season – if not the same season.
Even though United finished sixth in the league, the Europa League win last year coupled with the League Cup – and the Community Shield, which Mourinho definitely likes to count – meant that last year was still considered progress, since the club did manage to qualify for the Champions League as well.
At the start of this season, winning the league and a deep run in Europe was the target. United, just like all other clubs in the Premier League barring one, have been out of the title race since December, with Manchester City romping home with the title.
United have, however, established themselves in second after beating Liverpool over the weekend. They are still in the FA Cup as well, which is their only chance of silverware this season.
So would winning the FA Cup and finishing second in the league, be progress from last year, considering that United lost in the Round of 16 of the Champions League?
What about a trophy-less season and a second-placed finish? How about no silverware and a third or fourth-placed finish?
Perhaps an FA Cup win and second-placed finish would be deemed sufficient for things to be further rebuilt next year. And finishing in the top four should be enough to ensure that United would stick with Mourinho next season as well.
But should they?
Mourinho might disagree, but it is not merely the results on the table that result in optimism or pessimism for the coming seasons. Unfortunately, Mourinho’s style of play doesn’t suit the club.
It’s not just because of the defensive approach – which indeed has helped him win silverware all over Europe – or that United have traditionally liked to play with more dynamism and flair, it’s also because the siege mentality, the ‘world against us’ ideology won’t work at United.
Maybe, being result-oriented alone was crucial for United to move forward in the past year or so – which they have – but it wouldn’t get them where they want to be.
For, quite simply, it is hard to imagine Mourinho’s United beating Guardiola’s City, or indeed going deep in Europe next season.
The complete nosedive in Alexis Sanchez’s form, Romelo Lukaku’s on and off season, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford not quite being groomed into the world beaters they can be, and the apparent standoff with Paul Pogba shows that Mourinho doesn’t quite know how to get the best out of an impressive bunch of attacking players.
All his results in the league are based on solid defensive displays, a beefed up midfield, and more often than not letting the opposition play ball – a brief summary of last week’s win against Liverpool.
Having said that, it is hard to see Mourinho and United not being together next season. The club is in the middle of its fifth straight season without a league challenge, and the trophies from last year and a potential second-placed finish this year, would be tangible enough progress.
And yet it would be a surprise if Mourinho does manage to deliver the two biggest trophies at United – especially if his longtime rival Guardiola continues to pull the strings at City.