Can José Mourinho be the Right One for Manchester United?

The Portuguese was in a typically brash mood during his unveiling at Old Trafford

It didn't end well. José Mourinho had his notebook in front of him with the 49 names he had written down to nail "the lie" that he was averse to bringing through players from academies, the Manchester United way. The names were colour-coded in green, red and blue and at the end of his press conference he was happy to hand them over. Then the man from the BBC bumped into his table, a glass of water went flying over his notes and all those different colours ran into one. "Forget it," Mourinho said, "I will email." And then he was off, marching to the door, with splashes on his shoes.

He was true to his word and four hours later the list arrived, albeit with more names than previously advertised – 55 in total, with some surprises along the way. “You know how many young players I promoted to the first team from academies?” Mourinho had asked.

Yet Arjen Robben, Mikel John Obi, Lassana Diara, Marko Arnautovic, Raphaël Varane and Kurt Zouma had all been added to his list, on the apparent basis they played for him when they were under the age of 21. Robben, to put that in context, had made over 100 appearances for Groningen and PSV Eindhoven before he even joined Chelsea. He had also won 10 caps for Holland and starred in Euro 2004.

On a similar theme, Carlos Alberto had played 43 times for Fluminese and won four Brazil caps before linking up with Mourinho at Porto. Mario Balotelli was included with a little asterisk, confusingly, to recognise that, yes, he was a rogue addition (Balotelli made his debut for Lumezzane in April 2006 and first played for Inter under Roberto Mancini in late 2007). Several others, it turned out, had made their debuts elsewhere (one, amusingly, had not even played for Mourinho). As for the legitimate ones, 10 had played fewer than 10 minutes for the Portuguese. Three – John Swift, Sam Hutchinson and Anthony Grant – had managed a minute each. Only 11 out of the original 49 had played 90 minutes or more under Mourinho. One, unfortunately, was Carlos Alberto. Another was Casemiro and Mourinho appeared to have forgotten that the Brazilian had played 66 games for São Paulo before Real Madrid signed him.


It was a nice try – classic José – and particularly given the theatric way Mourinho produced his notes to align himself with a club that have a remarkable statistic of going 3,787 games, all the way back to 1937, with at least one homegrown player in their team or on the bench. How, he was asked, did people have this impression of him? “One lie, repeated many times,” he replied. “Sometimes it looks true but it will always be a lie.” And, for a while, he had us. Mourinho, much like Sir Alex Ferguson, can be a wonderful actor when the occasion demands it.

In fairness, he isn’t the only manager to embellish the truth for his own needs. Overall, he spoke well, as he always tends to in happy times, and it quickly became apparent that the ordeal of his final season at Chelsea – “a disaster” he called it – had not dented his confidence too greatly. “There are some managers that the last time they won a title was 10 years ago,” he pointed out. “Some of them, the last time they won a title was never. The last time I won a title was one year ago. It wasn’t 10 years ago or 15 years ago, it was one year ago. So if I have a lot to prove, imagine the others.”

No prizes for guessing who he meant and, by the end, it was not just Arsène Wenger who might have been reminded of Mourinho’s talent for chopping people down without actually mentioning them by name. Louis van Gaal’s work was also taken apart if you read between the lines. Nobody could be sure if it was wholly intentional but it was difficult, for example, not to think of the previous manager, with his jarring references to “the process” and “the philosophy” when Mourinho described himself as “never very good at playing with words or hiding behind words and hiding behind philosophies”.

Certainly, there was no attempt to disguise his disdain when he spoke about United’s three seasons – finishing seventh, fourth and fifth - since Ferguson’s retirement. “I could approach this job in a defensive point of view by saying: ‘Yes, the last three years the best we did was fourth, the best we did was the FA Cup.’ I prefer to be more aggressive and say we want to win. You can win a short competition, or you can win a couple of matches, without playing well but you cannot win competitions without playing well.” The message was clear: he wants the title back at Old Trafford next season.

Nobody could be left under any doubt, either, about what a man of his status felt about being in the Europa League and there was a touch of deja vu for those of us who also attended the first press conference of his second stint at Chelsea a couple of summers ago. On that occasion, Mourinho had informed his audience the precise number of games he had managed in the Champions League. Now, he did exactly the same. “I don’t hide that I chase Sir Alex’s record,” he explained. Ferguson finished on 192; Mourinho is on 133 but with time on his side. “I am 53, not 63 or 73,” he said. “Maybe you are tired with myself because I started so well at the highest level. But I’m 53. I am a very young manager.”

What he took care not to do was start a row with Pep Guardiola before a ball had even been kicked in anger. It made no sense, he explained, to take on his old adversary now they both found themselves in Manchester. Not yet anyway. There were other ways, though, of scoring points. “I am the manager of Manchester United,” Mourinho said. “I have to say I am the manager of the biggest club in the UK, so I don’t have to look at the others so much.”

If anyone doubted whether he could maintain the truce, it certainly felt appropriate to remember that Mourinho anointed himself “the Happy One” on his return to Chelsea only to finish his time at Stamford Bridge on the point of spontaneous combustion. Could the most calculated and confrontational manager in the business really be trusted not to pick another fight with Wenger, Guardiola and all the rest? Almost certainly not, but for now he sounded like he meant it and the reason, he said, was because the landscape of English football had changed.

“Leicester’s legacy was not just happiness around the country and the smiles on our faces. Their legacy is that from now on was we are in a competition where 20 teams are fighting for the title. So for me to speak about one manager, one club, one enemy – and I hate that word – I don’t think is right in this country.

“It is one thing to be a in a competition like I was in Spain where it was a two-horse race, or in Italy where it was three teams fighting for the title, because then it made sense to have that kind of approach [taking on rival managers]. In the Premier League it doesn’t make sense at all. If you focus too much on one opponent, the other ones will be laughing. The other ones will be so happy with that, so I am not going to be part of it. I have the respect for every club, every manager, every opponent, and thanks a lot to Leicester because one of their legacies is to change the competition for ever.”

We’ll see. We have heard these promises before with Mourinho. Yet his first performance was still an impressive piece of theatre – he sounded, first and foremost, like a Manchester United manager – and a thin attempt to rewrite history didn’t alter the perception that his new employers finally have the right man. Mourinho looked around him with the air of a man who already belonged. It was the aura of a man who considered himself the perfect fit. It felt like we were watching the Right One.

(Guardian service)