Ken Early: José Mourinho and Man United look out of date

Basic formula that brought success in the past has been ousted by newer methods

Jose Mourinho's Manchester United stall Liverpool's flowing attacking style to leave fans of the teams at the much anticipated clash disappointed. Video: Reuters


One of the perks of being sent off as a manager in the Premier League is that you don’t have to fulfil post-match media obligations. So on Saturday, after José Mourinho was sent to the stands for the 13th time in his career, he at least got to leave the task of explaining Manchester United’s 0-0 draw with Burnley to his assistant, Rui Faria.

Faria has worked with Mourinho for 15 years, he knew what would be expected of him. He handled the questions with terse discipline, laced with sarcasm, repeating the same talking points in a series of interviews. The sending off was not important. What was important was what the referee would report. The referee had given a fantastic performance, etc.

The striking thing about him was how much he resembled his boss. It’s no surprise if Faria has internalised a lot of the manager’s tropes and mannerisms: he has been an unsmiling presence at Mourinho’s side ever since their days at Leiria.

The goalkeeping coach, Silvino Louro, has also been with Mourinho since his first years in management. It’s remarkable that this coaching team has stuck together so long, changing club six times and living in four different countries. Mourinho spoke recently about how his heart would belong 100 per cent to whichever club he was working for at the time. He is more loyal to his staff than his clubs.

Good quality

Loyalty is usually regarded as a good quality. Alex Ferguson ended one of his autobiographies with the claim that “Loyalty has been the anchor of my life”. But it’s notable that Ferguson never worked with any assistant for as long as Mourinho has worked with Rui Faria.

He employed seven assistant managers during his 27 years at Manchester United. Of those, Brian Kidd lasted the longest, working with Ferguson for seven years from 1991 to 1998. But the most influential was probably Carlos Queiroz, who did two stints with Ferguson between 2002 and 2008, interrupted by a brief spell managing Real Madrid.

Ferguson had not worked with Queiroz before he hired him as his assistant. Queiroz’ big achievement until that point had been to win two World Youth Championships with the Portugal under-20s.

Second Captains

At the time when Queiroz was hired, Ferguson’s United had been successful for more than a decade, but their domination of the Premier League had not translated to domination at European level.

They had swept to victory in the 1999 tournament on a wave of attacking exuberance, but the limitations of their high-tempo style had been exposed in a counter-attacking clinic by Real Madrid the following season, and Ferguson felt they needed to add new dimensions to their game. They needed to evolve beyond 4-4-2, and Queiroz was appointed to be their guide.

Ferguson gave Queiroz license to fundamentally restructure United’s approach to the game. They started moving away from the high-energy, high-risk football they’d played in the late 1990s towards a controlled, patient, possession style.

Given how successful the high-energy approach had been for United, entrusting the future to Queiroz was rather a risky move. Back in 2002/’03, playing five in midfield was still widely seen as a betrayal of the club’s soul. United were criticised for boring and unadventurous play. Queiroz fell out with some players, including Roy Keane. Ferguson kept faith with his assistant.

The rewards came in the form of the great team that won four league titles and reached three Champions League finals from 2006 to ’11. The team set records for consecutive clean sheets at home and in Europe and frequently played with no striker, which would have been incomprehensible five or six years before.

The point is that Ferguson had the humility to recognise when his approach had gone stale, and the strength to welcome and encourage new influences on his team’s training and tactics. That openness to new ideas is why his teams never seemed out-of-date.

Out of date would be a fair way to describe United at the moment. Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool lead the league on 23 points, with Chelsea on 22 and Spurs on 20. All play fast, flexible football that looks distinctively modern.

United lag way behind on 15 points, with a set-up featuring a big man up top – big men all over the field, in fact – and a simple attacking game-plan based around creative individuals providing a bit of off-the-cuff magic in the final third.

The two most important trends in the game over the last decade have been the positional possession football of Barcelona and the high-pressing approach pioneered by Barcelona and top German clubs. If you look at United’s team it’s as though neither of these revolutions ever happened. They are playing football from 10 years ago.

Basic formula

Ten years ago, José Mourinho was the most successful young coach in Europe. He and his little team of staff have gone from club to club, applying the same basic formula at each club, and they have enjoyed a lot of success. When the formula stops working, they don’t change the formula – they change clubs.

Perhaps their success has made them reluctant to update their methods: if you’re already number one, why change?

It would be understandable if Mourinho remains wedded to the same ideas that originally made him successful. You wonder when it’s going to dawn on him that they won’t bring him success again.

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