There was an odd air of sympathy among Manchester United supporters on Saturday evening and Sunday morning as they learned of Louis van Gaal’s impending sacking. It could hardly be driven by surprise, given that Van Gaal’s eventual fate has been the worst-kept secret of this or any other season. Yet many fans thought it unfair that Van Gaal’s future was being discussed so readily in the aftermath of the FA Cup final victory.
For the most part, it was the media who bore the brunt of supporters’ ire. Quite what else those who had been (reportedly) leaked the story by Mourinho’s camp were expected to do other than report what they had been told is unclear. That, after all, is their job. Those who sit on big news in order to allow a manager a metaphorical lap of honour will not last long.
Quite why Van Gaal deserved this moment in the sun is also uncertain, given that he has spent most of the last two years keeping United firmly in the shade. For the vast majority of Van Gaal’s 103 matches in charge, at least one of United’s results or style has fallen dreadfully short of expectation, often both. A proportion of supporters who felt that Van Gaal had been somehow shafted on Saturday will have booed as he entered the pitch following the final home game against Bournemouth.
Whatever the reason for the initial pangs of condolence for Van Gaal, the feeling should quickly pass. Van Gaal arrived with a reputation for dominance, both in personality and playing style. He began his tenure proclaiming that United could win the Premier League title in his first season, and ended his second year in charge insisting that an FA Cup and a fifth-place finish was enough for him to keep his job. The Iron Tulip turned rusty in the Manchester rain.
Yet there is something quintessentially Jose Mourinho-esque about his imminent appointment at Old Trafford. After months of rumour, counter-rumour and counter-counter-rumour, for Van Gaal’s sacking to be leaked via Jorge Mendes before his predecessor had even conducted his post-match press conference was a bold PR move. As if Mendes ever deals in anything else.
Mourinho’s appointment will not please every United fan, but divisiveness has always been his style. There will be relevant concerns over his stunting of wingers and propensity to wage internal wars. The club’s desire to keep faith in a youth system that Van Gaal allowed to flourish also jars against Mourinho’s own reputation.
Unfortunately, this is no time for sentiment. Three years after the departure of Alex Ferguson, United are no nearer to standing on their own two feet. You might suggest that Ed Woodward is hardly the perfect crutch. The priority is immediate and substantial: on-field improvement. It’s time to focus on the rise, not the demise.
On that front, there are few better for the job. Mourinho took Porto from fifth to first in the space of 16 months. He improved Chelsea from second to first in one season (with a 16-point increase). He guided Internazionale from Champions League also-rans to winners in two years. He took Real Madrid further in the Champions League in his first season than they had been for eight years and then won the title in his second year with 100 points. He took Chelsea from third to first in two seasons.
You can worry too that Mourinho has a reputation for leaving his job after three years, but that’s becoming pretty standard across the board at the highest level. The idea of building a dynasty might sit well with the ‘Class of 92’ disciples, but 1992 was 24 years ago.
Most of all, however, this is an appointment borne out of inevitability. ‘Jose Mourinho, Manchester United manager’ has always seemed a natural fit ever since his Porto team defeated United so memorably in the Champions League in 2004. Mourinho is United’s forgone conclusion, ever destined to collide paths. If the assumption was that the club would turn to him as their final roll of the dice, that time has come. If not now, then when?
United have not quite fallen to their knees, but the reality is no less appetising. The last time they finished outside the top three three years in a row was 1991. They face a gap of at least six seasons between Champions League semi-final appearances; Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City have all done so since United. It is that last name that stings the most. The identity of City’s new manager has also forced United into action. They must wake from the slumber.
Those who fret about Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford may point to Gary Neville’s famous words on David Moyes’ sacking and see a club now embracing “the immediacy of modern life”. The reality is that Manchester United no longer have a choice. When playing catch-up, the speed of the pursuit becomes key. It’s time for them to dance with their devil.