Perhaps the most unexpected aspect about Jose Mourinho’s dismissal by Manchester United on Tuesday is that, despite everything, the end came as a surprise.
Performances on the pitch were dreadful. This has been Man United’s worst start to a season in the Premier League era and Sunday’s limp defeat at Anfield left the club 19 points off behind league-leader Liverpool and 11 points off Chelsea in fourth, but the sense had been that the board was not willing to sanction a payoff believed to be £22.5 million, particularly not with rumors swirling of a possible takeover by a Saudi consortium.
Of all the many questions this raises, that perhaps is the most pressing. Why now? What was it in Sunday’s display that convinced the board to make its move? It’s understood a caretaker appointment–not Mourinho’s assistant Michael Carrick–is likely to be made within the next 48 hours, so it may be that United was simply waiting to get somebody in position it take over until the end of the season.
Or perhaps it is that Sunday was so bad, conceding a club-record 36 shots, that it became apparent that United’s form was damaging the club’s reputation. The value of the club on the stock market has fallen by $1.2 billion since July.
The role of Paul Pogba, perhaps, was also key. He has been regarded as key to United’s branding, but his relationship with Mourinho had been broken beyond repair, to the point that he was left on the bench throughout the entirety of Sunday’s embarrassment. Pogba remains the most expensive midfielder in Premier League history, United’s most iconic star. It makes little sense to have him decaying on the bench, his value deceasing as his resentment rises.
Besides, the season is not yet over. United is still in the Champions League, still has the FA Cup for which to fight, and it’s not inconceivable that the gap to fourth and Champions League qualification could be closed. There was that brief flurry of games in which United staged remarkable comebacks, but the spirit that was prevalent in those victories over Newcastle, Juventus and Bournemouth was nowhere to be seen on Sunday. To keep Mourinho would have felt like writing off the season. Ed Woodward, the CEO, has said that results are only a small part of the club’s business plan these days, but evidently they are enough.
The dismissal comes three years and a day since Mourinho left Chelsea “by mutual consent” following defeat at Leicester City. There is a sense of the familiar pattern repeating. Only once in his career has Mourinho lasted more than three seasons at any club, and that was at Chelsea the first time around, when he was sacked in the following September. The theory has always been that his abrasive personality wears his players out, then the constant antagonism that he uses to generate a siege mentality in his squad leaves ultimately to an excess of friction, both with his squad and the directors. It’s debatable anyway whether his image of himself and his players as rebels can really succeed at a club as big as Manchester United (as he found at Real Madrid).
All of which leads to two other questions: First of all, what does Mourinho do next? There are very few obvious options for him. It’s hard to imagine another Premier League club employing him, unless he ended up at some point replacing Nuno Espirito Santo at Wolves, where the influence of his agent, Jorge Mendes, is strong. Major clubs now are so conscious of their brand, of which playing style is a key part, that his preferred style of play makes him an unlikely fit for Paris Saint-Germain or Bayern Munich. It’s doubtful anybody in Italy could afford him other than Juventus, but his relationship with that club, its directors and fans, has been toxic since his time as manager of Inter Milan.
That leaves Spain. Barcelona, clearly, is impossible, but a return to Real Madrid may not be. Santiago Solari, appointed after the dismissal of Julen Lopetegui earlier this season, has done little to convince and was never seen as a long-term appointment, and Mourinho’s relationship with president Florentino Perez remains good. Although there were clearly issues in his relationship with certain players when he left in 2013, many of them have moved on and Perez has, anyway, given the impression he feels the squad could do with a disciplinarian to shock them back into line. But if Madrid is not an option, Mourinho could end up exiled to China or the Middle East, picking up a fortune in a league with little global pull.
The second question is where United goes from here. It cannot believe Mourinho was the source of all its problems, although it’s almost certainly true that he made many of them worse. Everything about United these days feels a little outdated, from the facilities for fans and the media to the scouting to recruitment. The result is an unbalanced squad that will not easily be put right.
It’s entirely possible, though, that removing the cloud that was hanging over the players may lead to an uplift in form and fortune.