Eleven days shy of two years ago Louis Van Gaal sat in the Europa Suite at Old Trafford and faced the media for the first time as Manchester United manager. Scarred by the naivety and defeatism of David Moyes, a man totally overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding one of the world’s biggest clubs, the fans were largely positive about what they heard.
The Dutchman was cautious with what he promised, highlighting that the club he inherited had just finished seventh in the Premier League, but assured those watching that after a three month period of acclimatisation his team would fully understand and implement his footballing philosophy. Possession was the name of the game, and United supporters dreamed of a repeat of his success in Holland, Spain and Germany. That dream slowly turned sour as the tedious, prosaic football and inadequate results wore down even the most committed and optimistic football purists. The ego that had so excited supporters in July 2014 was simply not enough to revive a club that had lost its identity after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in May 2013.
Fast forward two years and another self assured ego addressed the media for the first time. Only time will tell whether or not Jose Mourinho is a success at United, but his was a near perfect presentation of his vision for the future for the club. The Portuguese had clearly prepared his answers, but his dismantling of the methods of Van Gaal was subtle yet cutting. This was not the bombastic entrance he had made in his first press conference in England more than a decade ago, or a rerun of the ‘happy one’ who returned to Stamford Bridge in 2013, having been overlooked for the job he had long coveted at United. Mourinho’s performance on Tuesday was measured and thoughtful, yet offered a conscious dismantling of his predecessors philosophy and excuses. In short, the new manager provided the fans with absolutely everything they wanted to hear.
An effective, common sense approach to transfers had already pricked the ears of a fanbase that had grown used to seeing square pegs in round holes. United needed a centre back so Mourinho bought one. They needed a striker to aid Marcus Rashford’s development and in came a great one. They needed a right sided attacking midfielder and Henrikh Mkhitaryan completed his move this week. They still need a midfielder. Jose has it covered. The Portuguese’s press conference provided extra assurance for those already enamoured with United’s approach to the summer transfer window.
Despite describing Van Gaal as a ‘great’ manager, the desire to make a clean break from Mourinho’s predecessors failed philosophy was apparent from the outset. He explained that he was ‘never good at hiding behind words and philosophies’, a clear dig at the excuses for failure of the Dutchman. Second would not do for the Portuguese:
‘I could say we come fourth and do well in the FA Cup. I could not go that way……For many years success for Manchester United was just routine. The last three years I just want to forget. What’s to do better? Finish fourth? That’s not the aim.’
When asked whether his powers were waning, following his disastrous start to last season at Chelsea, Mourinho could not resist a dig at his Premier League nemesis Arsene Wenger:
‘There are managers, the last time they won a title was ten years ago. The last time I won was one year ago.’
However, the narrative quickly returned to the conscious break from the recent past at United and their most recent manager. Mourinho was not interested in philosophies or winning ‘small trophies’ playing badly. Referencing his approach in the transfer market, he focused on his desire for an initial four signings and, in contrast to Van Gaal’s preference for adaptable, multi-purpose players, stated that he wanted only ‘specialists’. After two years of watching myriad footballers odd-jobbing in unfamiliar positions, this was manna from heaven.
In total contrast to his predecessor’s approach, the Portuguese discussed his tactical framework, specifically stating his dislike of systems which result in the ball being retained purely for the sake of ‘statistics’. His football would be more ‘vertical’, and his players should ‘not be afraid to lose the ball. I like ball possession as a way to make a chance’. It is hard to overstate how reassuring those words are for supporters sick of sideways passing and performances devoid of attacking intent or excitement. Flair and speed of foot and thought are characteristics that have largely been the staple diet of the fans since the sacking of Dave Sexton. The football would be the antithesis of that served up by Van Gaal and, in another surely conscious dig, Mourinho stated that, ‘My principles won’t be difficult for the players to understand’. There will be no indefinite adaptation period, a handy excuse for a manager struggling to impose his will on a group of players who appeared neither suitable for the system they were being asked to play, nor convinced of its merits. Football will once more be a simple game for United.
Mourinho also addressed the great Old Trafford elephant in the room, the issue that both Moyes and Van Gaal had faced but failed to address: Wayne Rooney. There will be no attempt to shoehorn the declining 30 year old into a midfield role, where he has played with mixed results for United and England. ‘For me he will be a 9, a 10, a nine and a half but not a 6 and not even an 8.’ Rooney, it seems, will play well at 9 or 10 or not at all. No free pass into the team as he was given by Van Gaal. With Ibrahimovic, Rashford and co also in contention, he will play well further forward or become acquainted with the bench. Finally the untouchable has become mortal, at least two years later than should have been the case.
The new United manager took one last swipe at his predecessor when questioned about his history of youth development. Mourinho’s production of a list of the players he had promoted from the academies at previous clubs was somewhat cringeworthy, but he made a valid point about differing perceptions of his blooding of young players and Van Gaal’s. Again, in a transparent put down, he said:
‘Sometimes you promote players because you have no choice … and when you are not playing for big targets.’
For the new manager second is first loser and for him, as for Sir Alex, that will not do. His immediate targets are the Premier League title and, just as importantly, a return to the Champions League. Mourinho’s disdain for the Europa League was barely disguised. For United fans this shifting of approach and targets, both in terms of transfers and on the pitch, delivered in such an assured, relaxed but determined manner was music to their ears. All of their gripes and criticisms of Van Gaal’s tenure were addressed and there is a feeling that the future of the club is in safe and ambitious hands. The job of restoring Manchester United to the top of English and European football has only just begun, but Mourinho could not have made a better impression in his first few days in the job.