Updated: Jul 28, 2020
There he was, tapping the Manchester United badge on his chest and finally becoming one with the club.
This was the day Jose finally severed his remaining ties with Chelsea FC, it was the day he finally proved to the rest of the World (like we did not know already) that he was still special and it was the day he stopped being the ex-manager of Chelsea and finally became the long sought-after successor to Sir Alex Ferguson.
It was an exorcism of gargantuan proportions.
Jose had not fully recovered from what was largely perceived to be a player mutiny in his last season at Chelsea and just when he appeared to have regained some degree of emotional balance at United, on came Chelsea with a humbling 4-0 trashing at the Bridge - once the venue of his many triumphs. Players who had looked dead on their feet under Mourinho had suddenly become world-beaters under Antonio Conte, and surely that must have hurt the proud Portuguese. As if that was not enough, Chelsea again knocked United out of the FA Cup in a bad tempered match that saw Ander Herrera get sent off. The player who engineered the sending off? Eden Harzard, a player with whom Mourinho reportedly clashed in that toxic last season at Chelsea.
So, in 2 matches against his former club, the special one had managed no goals and had suffered two damaging defeats in which his rumoured arch-nemesis, Eden Harzard had held sway. It was beginning to look like he would never get one over his former club.
And then on Sunday, April 16, 2017, it happened.
Mourinho tapping away at United crest after final whistle versus Chelsea at Old Trafford. Photo credit: Micheal Regan,Getty Images
It was not all about the 2-0 win; it was more about the slick professionalism. United just looked a whole level above Chelsea and that must certainly worry the rest of the teams who still have to play Jose’s team. During the post match interview, the Special One struggled to hide a treacherous smile that just would not budge. He even managed to look handsome again and the twinkle was back in his eyes.
He had finally understood his club’s DNA.
To understand how he did it, we will need to go back to the previous managers and how they failed in this task.
The Forgotten Men
It may sound cruel to suggest that the 3 seasons preceding the appointment of Jose Mourinho as Manchester United Manager were a disappointment, especially when one considers Louis Van Gaal’s qualification for the Champions League in the 2014/2015 season and an FA Cup Triumph in the 2015/2016 season (never mind that the club missed out on Champions League qualification). It is said after all, that a club’s season is not always determined by its trophy cabinet. However, Manchester United are not just any other club and the legendary Dutchman soon found himself out of a job. Understandably, his predecessor, David Moyes will forever be remembered for shedding United’s toga of invincibility and costing the club its famed fear factor.
Call it arrogance or an unbridled sense of entitlement (and non-Manchester United fans will probably agree with you), but United have very unique standards and a manager who does not conform to their requirements will be chewed up and spat out most remorselessly. You see, this is a club with a history and more than its own fair share of trophies, great players, legendary matches and great managers but none of these factors is the ultimate determinant in itself; each factor is a part of the club’s DNA.
And this brings us to the most difficult question - What is Manchester United’s DNA?
Are Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson legends merely because of the trophies they won or the players they managed?
I am afraid it is a lot more than that and a certain cocky Portuguese manager seems to understand that better than his last two predecessors.
Manchester United’s DNA
I became a Manchester United fan during the 1998/1999 treble winning season. I followed the club’s exploits that season as a starry-eyed, wee lad of 17. Before then, I had read so much about United and their constant dominance of English football (led by a bad tempered but talented Frenchman called Eric Cantona) without commensurate European success as one would expect from the elite.There was however something different about the 1998/1999 season and I have since, with the benefit of hindsight, identified the positive, defining traits, linking them up with subsequent and previous seasons and managers.
It is my belief that these components of our DNA explain why some United managers have failed while others have been successful. The 1998/1999 season was in my opinion, the first season since the Matt Busby era that everything came together. In that season, the very essence of United (its DNA so to speak) was laid bare.
There are 5 characteristics of a true Manchester United side. A manager who can harness these 5 traits is already partially guaranteed success.
A Manchester United team must have great players, including established stars and young upcoming talent including homegrown kids. It should win trophies. It should have an attractive style of play, which keeps fans firmly glued to their seats. It should be envied by other clubs and must never give up no matter what.
(1) A Proper Squad
The 1998/1999 team had a proper squad (the speedy and skillful Ryan Giggs; the deceptively skillful but ‘hard as nails’ Roy Keane; a tiny, skillful, goal scoring midfielder and ginger haired ‘bastard’ called Paul Scholes; an accurate shooter and crosser of the ball called David Beckham; a resolute and uncompromising right back called Gary Neville; a baby faced assassin called Ole Gunnar Solskjaer; a colossal goalkeeper called Peter Schmeichel; and some cold-blooded finisher called Andy Cole). Subsequent teams built by Fergie had Ronaldo, Rooney, John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Owen Hargreaves, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Robin Van Persie.
Jimmy Ryan (left) and Bobby Charlton of Manchester United looking at the European Cup at Old Trafford, Manchester, July 1968. Photo Credit: Popperfoto,Getty Images
Sir Matt Busby had Sir Bobby Charlton, Duncan Edwards, Dennis Law and George Best. There were 3 Ballons’ D’ Or in that team alone. Louis Van Gaal and Moyes also had good squads. Moyes inherited a solid but slightly aging squad but through a series of administrative bungling only managed to acquire a lumbering Marouane Fellaini on the very last day. He also froze out the creative Wilfred Zaha who was bought by Ferguson before he left.
Van Gaal sanctioned the purchase of Ander Herrera, Memphis Depay, Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Radamir Falcao and Angel Di Maria and also introduced younger players, some of whom are now established squad players like Marcus Rashford, Fosu Mensah, Jesse Lingard and Antonio Martial (he cost a lot but was still a young player) but he showed a reluctance or inability to blend the established stars with the youngsters (most especially Radamir Falcao, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Angel Di Maria).
One could safely conclude, that David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal did not fully appreciate and understand this vital component of the United DNA.
(2) Winning trophies.
Manchester United has trophies ingrained in its DNA. The club loves to have something to celebrate at the end of the season but has also gone ‘trophy-less’ without making a huge fuss. Be that as it may, the Busby and Ferguson teams won trophies on a regular basis; both local and international.
David Moyes’ United side only won a Community shield in his 10 months while Louis Van Gaal’s side won the FA Cup in his second season (a season in which they also missed out on Champions League Qualification, having narrowly qualified the previous season). In addition, over the course of its 2 seasons, Van Gaal’s side was unceremoniously dumped out of the Capital One Cup (one of which was a humiliating 4-0 loss to MK Dons), the FA Cup and the Champions League.
(3) An attractive style of play.
This is a very pivotal component of United’s DNA.
With an attractive style of play, the fans are glued to their seats and this will buy even the worst manager some time. For United, an attractive style of play means heart-stopping wing-play, lots of goals and inventive, creative football as emphasized by Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson.
However, a manager could have a solid squad but still struggle to make it play attractive football and under David Moyes, the style of play was cautious and timid with a clear lack of imagination perhaps exemplified by Moyes’ inability to get the best out of raw, skilful and pacy players like Wilfred Zaha (Adnan Januzaj was certainly skilful but did not have the raw, explosive pace of Zaha). They played 'not to lose' and ended up getting hammered.
Van Gaal, a grizzled veteran and strict disciplinarian took over and I was highly expectant, having seen his legendary Ajax team of the 90s which featured my two favourite Nigerian players; Nwankwo Kanu and Finidi George. His team’s style of play was however slow and uninspiring. He had initially started with attacking football but after a 5-3 hammering at the hands of Leicester FC, he introduced the worst football United had played in decades, typified by sterile, ineffectual possession and very few goals in the first half of any game. A creative genius like Angel Di Maria was allowed to leave and the players almost looked like robots having lost their sense of expression. Shots were rarely attempted outside the 18-yard box and fans old enough to remember George Graham’s ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ must have wondered if history was repeating itself.
(4) That Never-Say-Die attitude
The 4th requirement is the ability to invoke the United Spirit; the never-say-die attitude.
Again, Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson regularly invoked this spirit as their players never knew when they were beaten. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, it did not matter by how many goals you were leading, you kept looking over your shoulder expecting them to equalize or worse, win.
You could almost sniff out the fear of opposing teams. Roy Keane leading the charge after picking up a yellow against Juventus in the European Champions League semi-final that ruled him out of the final, Ryan Giggs scoring THAT goal against Arsenal in extra-time in the FA Cup semi-final and Ole Gunnar Solkjaer’s injury time winner against a bewildered Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. These teams were scared and the United players knew, their fans knew, our fans knew, their coaches knew and tragically for our opponents, so also did Sir Alex!
Matches against Spurs (5-3 from 3-0 down) and the 2-1 win over Bayern Munich in injury time in the 1999 Champions League final helped to cement this ‘fear factor’.
It is safe to conclude that David Moyes completely set the clock back during his tenure as Manager. 3-0 ‘trashings’ at Old Trafford at the hands of our auld enemies, Liverpool and Manchester City and unprecedented losses to just about every decent side, brought United fans down to earth fast. You just fancied your chances against his team and as the season wound to a close, United fans endured humiliating losses until they became numb but Moyes was not done yet; United soon found that they could no longer finish above the 7th position for the first time in decades. They were stuck with a Manager who just seemed out of his depth and lacked confidence. The team naturally followed suit.
Van Gaal brought back a bit of respect, winning matches against top teams but ultimately failed to consolidate on the big wins, losing to the smaller teams much too often. The less said about the team’s attitude, the better. His team hardly ever came back from behind and if you scored first against them, you were all but guaranteed a win. In December 2015, United fans experienced loss after loss until they became as listless as Van Gaal’s players.
The 5th requirement is envy.
You know a Manchester United side is relevant and envied when other managers and fans start to talk about its manager and players. Sir Busby and to a much larger extent, Sir Alex Ferguson built teams that were the envy of all. Referees were intimidated by them and opposition players were made to feel inferior. Opposition fans hated them but knew they were going to be walloped anyway.
Under David Moyes, the club became an object of ridicule as fans found their expectations inexplicably lowered with each passing game. It is also safe to say no team envied United under Van Gaal. What was there to envy in a team that could not even buy a goal in the first half? Or one that famously put fans to sleep? Or one that made fans empty their seats before the matches were over?
How does Mourinho fare?
Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson gave us teams that exhibited these 5 traits and they could therefore afford to play mind games and address the press boldly even when things were not going according to plan.
So how does Mourinho get the United DNA? We will start with the squad.
Jose Mourinho only purchased Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan but what an impact they have had. The squad now contains a perfect blend of great players, both homegrown and established (the old but free-scoring Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the ridiculously skilful and powerful Paul Pogba, the legendary Wayne Rooney, a still developing but fearless and pacy Marcus Rashford, the inventive Juan Mata, the versatile Daley Blind, the quick dribbling Antonio Martial, the combative but deceptively skilful Ander Herrera, the freakishly talented Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the rock solid Eric Bailly, the much sought after David De Gea and the unpredictable Jesse Lingard).
Here, Mourinho has showcased his man-management skills, effectively making the best out of what is available to him and experimenting with various formations and adapting to different situations all the while juggling four competitions; the FA Cup, the EPL, the Capital One Cup and the Europa League.
Under Jose Mourinho, play has been attractive. United dominate their opponents in every game and create chances; the only thing left is the conversion of these chances. The fans realize this and stay in their seats despite the fact that the team is currently 5th on the table and might need the Europa Cup to sneak into the Champions League this season.
Jose has also been able to convince the fans that the referees have not been exactly blameless with their bizarre decisions against United this season; unnecessary red cards, few penalties and questionable offside decisions. This has however been made possible because the fans can see for themselves what is happening on the pitch.
The fear factor is back at Old Trafford and visiting teams know they will be pried open sooner rather than later. Once the players start scoring regularly, it will once again become a slaughter-slab.
While Spurs must have celebrated the Red Devils’ dominant 2-0 win over Chelsea, one cannot but imagine that they must feel a tad bit uncomfortable hosting this United side in a few weeks. The same goes for Manchester City who also host their more illustrious and successful in a few weeks.
The never-say-die attitude is also slowly returning.
For now, it is reflected in the team’s refusal to lose and here, they are on a lengthy 22 match unbeaten run.
Whenever United are chasing a game these days, you just know they will equalize, even if they do not win and you cannot help but think that they will soon learn to come from behind and win ruthlessly like the United teams of old.
Jose Mourinho already has 2 trophies this season; the Community shield and the Capital One Cup and his team is a big favourite for the Europa League trophy.
Despite the fact that United are 5th on the EPL table, they have some games in hand and can still mathematically qualify for the Champions League.
Most importantly, Jose’s team is a throwback to the great United teams of old.
For every great United centre back, read Bailly, a focused Marcos Rojo and a fully fit Phil Jones. For a skilful midfield enforcer, read Ander Herrera; for a skilful passer of the ball and ball-hog, read Paul Pogba; for that pacy and creative master dribbler, read Henrikh Mhitaryan; and for a relentless goalscorer, read Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It is not guaranteed that Jose Mourinho’s United will make the top 4 in the EPL this season.
They might not even win the Europa League.
They however can find solace in the fact that they now have a man who more than any other manager since Sir Alex Ferguson understands Manchester United’s DNA and has therefore discovered its 6th hidden component; the ability to speak and sound like a Manchester United manager.
Yes, there is a way a United Manager speaks; that smug, almost condescending interview where he makes it clear he would have won that game if not for a couple of refereeing decisions. He knows it and everybody knows it. No, he does not shout but he makes it clear all the same and everyone takes note; the referee, the linesmen and the opposing players. Rest assured that the mistake will not repeat itself.
The fear is gone from Old Trafford but the fear-factor is back along with other parts of United’s DNA.
It is the reason Jose now sounds like a million dollars every time he opens his mouth.
Akin Akingbade is a freelance contributor to The Daily Manc based out of Abuja, Nigeria. All opinions and materials of contributor writers are solely their own, and do not necessarily represent positions held by The Daily Manc.