Like Palermo, Manchester United have a pink kit and have become adept at sacking managers. Jose Mourinho has now joined David Moyes and Louis van Gaal on the bonfire of regret that is the club’s post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Two trophies in his first season at the club and a second place behind runaway rivals Manchester City in his second, many, including United themselves after handing him a new contract, felt Mourinho was doing a pretty good job. But his third season, always a testing one in the Mourinho cycle, has seen a structural and psychological collapse that left the club with little choice.
If Moyes was overawed by the job at hand and hampered in the transfer market - even though his two signings of note, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, both appeared in Mourinho’s final game - and Van Gaal’s dreary football pounded fans’ dreams into dust, it’s arguable that both men came out of their Old Trafford spells with more credit than Mourinho.
The Portuguese was backed in the transfer market (before 2018 at least) considerably more than his predecessors and yet felt the need to name Scott McTominay as his player of the season at the end of 2017-18. There’s no one moment that condemned Mourinho to failure but there are games in the last 12 months that pointed to his fate as they drip fed negativity into the heart of his project.
We begin at Arsenal. December 2, 2017 and a 3-1 win for United. But at what cost? This was the match that encapsulated the fortune that United enjoyed in the Premier League in 2017-18. Luck that got them to second place and persuaded the club to give Mourinho a new contract barely six weeks later.
The story of this game was that Arsenal battered United but found David De Gea in supernatural form. The final Expected Goals differential of minus 2.87 is the biggest in any win by a Premier League club since the start of last season. The only match that even vaguely comes close is Swansea’s textbook smash and grab win against Liverpool in January.
In 2009 United swaggered to a Champions League semi-final win at the Emirates Stadium with Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney running riot; the club’s star players used to be forwards once upon a time, under Mourinho it was invariably an under-siege goalkeeper instead.
In this game alone Arsenal mustered 33 shots, a new record for United in the Premier League, for 12 months at least.
PL wins with biggest negative xG diffence (2017-18 & 2018-19)
|07/04/18||Man Utd||Man City||1.06||2.69||-1.63|
Fast forward to April 2018 and United’s title-delaying 3-2 victory at Manchester City was celebrated as a classic Mourinho, fly-in-the-ointment, Demba Ba special, but its fifth-placed spot in the table above hints at how much of an aberration it actually was.
A week later, United meekly handed the title to their rivals by losing at home to West Brom. By now the Baggies were on to their third manager of the season and faced a United team who had only ever lost once at home to a team starting the day at the bottom of the Premier League. "There was no fluidity," said Mourinho afterwards. He was right about that.
A new season and new optimism as United opened up 2018-19 with an unconvincing win against Leicester and a week later allowed Brighton to score with all three of their shots on target in the first half at the Amex Stadium. Albion did not trouble their opponents with any more in the second half but they didn’t need to; United had only two shots on target in the second period and a late Paul Pogba penalty was barely even a consolation goal.
The team who were masters of comebacks under Ferguson were left beached under Mourinho on the south coast. "We made incredible mistakes in some crucial moments," the manager complained. Again, he was correct.
United’s worst start for 29 years was confirmed at the London Stadium in September 2018 as West Ham beat them by a two-goal margin in a league game for the first time since 1982. Mourinho made four changes for this one as he searched for some sort of functional combination.
Six changes had been made to the starting XI after the Brighton defeat, seven would follow the 2-2 draw with Southampton. No one was safe apart from De Gea. And the manager, for a bit.
And so it would all come crashing down.
When Mourinho shattered Liverpool’s title hopes by winning at Anfield with Chelsea in 2014, he motivated his players by telling them that their hosts, and most of the country, wanted his team to be "the clowns in the circus".
Four-and-a-half years later Mourinho’s tenure as United manager drew to an end with the Kop lustily singing 'Don’t sack Mourinho' after a match in which the away side had more shots (36) against them than any team had done previously in a Premier League game.
Just as against Arsenal a year earlier, Mourinho’s side had been utterly dominated away from home against a traditional rival. This time, though, De Gea had regressed to a human level, Liverpool found a couple of deflections and, though we didn’t know it for 40 hours, Mourinho’s time was up.
Even with a fortunate goal from Jesse Lingard, Mourinho would end his Premier League career with United with fewer goals per game than Moyes. "Your job now is to stand by the new manager," Ferguson instructed in 2013.
Here we go again. Over to you, Ole.