Funny old game, football management. Both Stoke and West Brom were glad to see the back of Tony Pulis, and look where they are now. And look where Pulis is now, cheerfully turning Middlesbrough into a force again and keeping pace with Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds at the top of the Championship.
The word cheerfully is used carefully, for although Pulis has a reputation for functional football, his outlook is usually sunny and his attitude always positive. His reaction on missing out on the chance to sign Yannick Bolasie last week was fairly typical. “If we can’t get the players that will improve us, then we’ll work our socks off to get the best out of the ones we have,” Pulis said.
Which brings us in a roundabout way to Manchester United, who would never hire a manager like Pulis in a million years but sorely need some of his unifying philosophy.
José Mourinho, despite £364m spent in five transfer windows, has let it be known he is dissatisfied with the club’s failure to bring in more players over the summer. He specifically wanted another top-line centre-back and, while the executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, appears to have taken the reasonable view that United are well enough staffed in that area, not least with the centre-backs Mourinho has brought in, the manager’s comments duly undermined the confidence of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf at Brighton.
United’s listlessness is not confined to their backline either, with various players from Paul Pogba to Anthony Martial nursing personal grievances. There has already been too much coverage of who said what and when to make interesting reading for anyone other than Manchester City fans or Mourinho-haters, but suffice to say that United at the moment are not working their socks off. They are looking like a failed experiment, and an extremely expensive one.
There is a blame game going on at Old Trafford, which some choose to interpret as par for the course for a third Mourinho season and others more pointedly regard as a calculated distraction to draw attention from the unpalatable truth that United are miles behind City on the field.
Some loyalists, including Dimitar Berbatov, bless him, are of the opinion any side can suffer an early-season blip and United’s title challenge will soon be back on the rails. The former United and Spurs striker even pointed out, in his capacity as a Betfair analyst, that Mourinho’s Internazionale began their all‑conquering 2009-10 season with a tame draw.
Yet that was peak Mourinho, back when a capable manager was still excited by the possibilities presented by a talented group of players. This feels more like piqued Mourinho, the situation reminiscent of the divisive and unnecessary stance taken against Dr Eva Carneiro and a largely blameless Chelsea medical staff in 2015. That internal rift had no happy ending and it is hard to see why this one should turn out any differently if Woodward and Mourinho are at odds with each other, and the players somewhere in between.
It is also difficult to work out why Woodward handed Mourinho a contract extension last season if he knew he would be tightening the purse strings. Three years of Mourinho would probably have been enough for most United supporters, who realised some time ago he was not going to fully embrace life in Manchester or seriously challenge Pep Guardiola for supremacy of the city.
Spotting the flaws in failed successions is always easier in hindsight but some United supporters are also asking themselves why a club that prides itself on playing with a certain swagger has gone for three conservative managers in a row since Sir Alex Ferguson.
More might have been expected of Mourinho, though unless he can get his attacking act together very quickly he will simply be lumped in with David Moyes and Louis van Gaal as part of a generally unsatisfactory post-Ferguson continuum. The game has moved on and Old Trafford has failed to move with it, unless anyone counts stacking up official mattress, coffee and outdoor apparel partners as signs of progress.
United were never going to land Guardiola, given City’s long‑standing interest and Barcelona connections, though Jürgen Klopp was under consideration at one point and might have been persuaded when frustrated at Bayern Munich picking off his best players. Klopp won the Bundesliga title and reached a Champions League final with Dortmund, which put him on United’s radar.
The manager in the opposing dugout when United take on Tottenham on Monday has still not won a thing, though a theory is gaining traction that an ideal candidate has been overlooked all along. Moyes had not won anything either when United appointed him in 2013, yet by that point, even though communicating through an interpreter, Mauricio Pochettino had begun to make a name for himself at Southampton, both for an attacking brand of football and a willingness to trust young players.
When Southampton finished eighth in his first full season no one queried the wisdom of replacing Nigel Adkins any more but it was Spurs who took a punt on an up-and-coming manager, while United went for what they regarded as the more reliable option in Van Gaal and were rewarded by two years of stale, passionless football.
Part of the reason Mourinho was eventually welcomed, against the better judgment of some of the United board, was that he could hardly fail to perk up the place after that, yet though he has won silverware it would be hard to argue he has energised the club to the same extent Pochettino has at Spurs.
Tottenham are so impressed they have awarded their manager a contract until 2023, which if he sees it out will mean a nine-year tenure. Eagle-eyed observers will have spotted this is exactly the sort of stability/continuity Ferguson originally hoped Moyes would provide, vastly preferable to chopping and changing every two or three years.
While there is no guarantee Pochettino would have fared any better than Moyes in the difficult period of adjustment immediately after Ferguson, there is every reason to believe he would have been more popular with United supporters than the two supposedly super-managers that followed.