LONDON – Manchester United could probably have had Pep Guardiola, but in January 2013 the Catalan had agreed to take over at Bayern Munich. Instead, four months later, United appointed David Moyes as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor.
United could also have signed Jurgen Klopp in the summer of 2015, but stayed with Louis van Gaal for another season before Jose Mourinho signed a three-year contract in May 2016.
It is unthinkable that a manager tainted by association with City or Liverpool could ever work at United. Had the club believed Guardiola or Klopp was a good or better candidate then maybe, just maybe, United would be playing with the style associated with the Catalan or the attacking power of Klopp, and Mourinho would be working elsewhere. Right now that is what many United supporters would like — for the Portuguese to leave Old Trafford.
Mourinho was never a comfortable fit for United’s history, tradition and heritage, a club built on attacking, entertaining football. The teams of Sir Matt Busby and Ferguson combined those qualities with success. Entertainment has never been very high on Mourinho’s list of priorities — in fact, it is difficult to think what might be second after winning.
As his second season comes to a close, United is involved in a three-way fight with Liverpool and Tottenham to finish second to champion Manchester City. The Premier League is on hold this weekend because on Saturday United plays Tottenham in the F.A. Cup semifinal, the only tangible prize available to either club.
The neutral support will be with Spurs, whose football under Mauricio Pochettino has been generally exhilarating and inventive with the likes of Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Mousa Dembele, Dele Alli and Son Heung-min a joy to watch.
United, on the other hand, is pragmatic and functional, only occasionally breaking free from its tactical straitjacket to remind us of the good old days.
The Theatre of Dreams has become a Temple of Tedium with only David de Gea, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku having an outstanding season. Reports suggest United seems willing to allow Paul Pogba, who became English football’s costliest signing when he joined the Reds from Juventus for £89 million two years ago, to leave — good luck to United finding a club willing to match that fee and the France international’s astronomical wages (not forgetting whatever his agent, Mino Raiola, may want — he received £44 million from the Juventus move).
Instead of adding stardust to United’s midfield, Pogba has become an expensive conundrum — in eight of United’s last 13 games he has either been a substitute, been replaced or not played at all. Alexis Sanchez has been an embarrassing flop since his January move from Arsenal, while Marcus Rashford, the most promising young player United has produced in years, is almost a serial benchwarmer.
To finish the season without a trophy and finishing below City and perhaps Liverpool would be a failure with fingers already being pointed at Mourinho. United may have 71 points already, two more than last season’s total, but such a statistic barely represents real improvement.
Mourinho’s team selection for Wednesday’s 2-0 win at Bournemouth gave an indication of who he felt was the worst of a bad bunch in the 1-0 home loss to bottom club West Bromwich last Sunday that handed City the title. Pogba survived and typical of his hot and cold career at United he was man of the match at Bournemouth.
Not for the first time, Mourinho doubted United’s mental strength after the loss to West Bromwich and though Matic and Lukaku were rested from the starting XI at Bournemouth with an eye on Wembley on Saturday, Sanchez, Victor Lindelof and Juan Mata should worry about returning for Tottenham. The dilemma for Mourinho with Sanchez is that leaving out a player who he delighted in signing from Arsenal would amount to self-criticism, which the Portuguese is allergic to.
United’s old boys have not held back. Former captain Gary Neville said: “United started the season trying to rid itself of performances like against West Brom. Mourinho referred to attitude and consistency. He needs to identify the ones causing these problems and they need to go. I think there will be three or four players leaving and the same number coming in. He’s got to make up that gap (on Man City) and it’s going to be tough. Consistency is about mentality and players have fallen well below that.”
Nemanja Vidic added: “You play for Man United, it’s not acceptable to draw or lose, always you have a high expectancy. We won the Champions League and we didn’t celebrate. We had two hours of celebration, go on holiday, and the manager was thinking: ‘Who will we bring in next season to compete?’ “
City has raised the bar in a wonderful, unforgettable season for the club. It had a blip at the worst time, losing to Liverpool in the Champions League and United in the Premier League in a less than magnificent seven days. Yet that cannot detract from a season in which records have been continually rewritten — City is on course to become the first Premier League club to win 100 points — and its football has rarely dipped below spectacular.
The best team in England by a distance will be strengthened during the summer from the seemingly bottomless pit of transfer funds provided by the Abu Dhabi-based owners. Right now, only Liverpool looks in position to give City any sort of challenge next season. Klopp’s front three of Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane are probably the best attacking trio in Europe.
The emergence of full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold plus the steady improvement of January signing Virgil van Dijk has shored up previously over-generous defense. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has quickly become Arsenal’s loss and Liverpool’s gain, though Klopp knows that his spending power cannot compare with Guardiola’s funds. The strongest will become even stronger.
Pochettino’s Spurs are 19 points behind City which, again with limited spending, makes such a gap seem more like a canyon. Who will be in charge of Arsenal and Chelsea next season is anyone’s guess, but whoever it is knows the title is no more than a dream.
At least United, Tottenham and Chelsea, which plays Southampton in the other F.A. Cup semifinal on Sunday, has a chance to end this season with a trophy, though Southampton’s priority is avoiding relegation which looks a task of Mount Everest proportions.
Mourinho, Pochettino and Antonio Conte desperately need to end the season on a high note though for different reasons. Mourinho because a trophy-less campaign would increase the pressure from fans, Pochettino because compliments about Spurs’ football are fine, but the bottom line is always winning a trophy and Conte because after a generally wretched nine months the Italian would be able to leave (as he surely will) with a cup to go with last year’s title.
Two of these big three will ultimately be losers (assuming Southampton does not defy every tipster), but after Wednesday’s win at Bournemouth, Mourinho reminded the world, perhaps tongue-in-cheek but he is rarely agenda-less: “I still have the emotions of last Sunday. I know how to win titles, in case some of the young guys don’t know. I won eight in four different countries.”
He is a winner, not necessarily lovable, but a winner and a dangerous man to bet against.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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