LONDON (Reuters) – Jose Mourinho’s relationship with Manchester United reached the point of irretrievable breakdown a long time ago but the club finally served the divorce papers on Tuesday as the world’s biggest club sacked the game’s most famous manager.
The decision came as United laboured to their worst start for 28 years, playing dull, defensive football, with Mourinho cutting an ever-angrier figure after each setback, but Sunday’s 3-1 defeat by Liverpool was one humiliation too far.
After decades of being the biggest fish in the English soccer pond, United had just about come to terms with the fact that bottomless new funding had enabled Chelsea and then Manchester City to displace them in terms of spending power and trophy accumulation.
But when Liverpool, in whose shadow United laboured for so long before Alex Ferguson finally “knocked them off their perch”, brushed them aside on Sunday like the mediocre mid-table team they have become, it was the end of the line for the Portuguese coach.
“Manchester United announces that manager Jose Mourinho has left the club with immediate effect,” the 20-times English title winners said in a brief statement.
That followed Sunday’s defeat that left them 19 points behind Juergen Klopp’s Liverpool side in sixth place and 11 points off the Champions League places. The 29 goals they have conceded is their worst at this stage of a season for 56 years.
For the current crop of United fans and officials who gorged on success during Alex Ferguson’s 26-year reign that is just not acceptable.
Mourinho will point to the fact that after replacing Dutchman Louis van Gaal in May 2016 he won the Europa League and the League Cup in his first season, before guiding United to second place and a place in the FA Cup final, where they were beaten by Chelsea, in his second.
His 58.33% win record is considerably better than that of David Moyes (52.94) and Van Gaal (52.43) and only marginally behind Ferguson’s 59.67.
But those figures mask the fact that he has been poor against the other top-six teams, while his tactical approach has alienated just about everyone at the club.
With every passing defeat he found new ways to blame the players while reminding his critics of his previous successes at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
If he had failed while trying to win with United’s customary panache he may have survived a little longer.
But while City, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have been thrilling fans with their swashbuckling approach, Mourinho has become the arch-proponent of “parking the bus” — a phrase he introduced to English football’s lexicon when complaining about teams packing their defence to foil his exciting Chelsea team.
His fallout with 90 million pounds ($114.17 million) French midfielder Paul Pogba summed up his failure.
Good enough to inspire France to win the World Cup this summer, Pogba has spent the last two weeks sitting on the bench, effectively punished for daring to suggest the team should be more attacking and play like the Wolverhampton Wanderers team who drew 1-1 at Old Trafford.
Instead Mourinho has opted for the sturdier qualities of the likes of Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini.
Mourinho, bucking the trend of “ultimate responsibility” has been ever-more critical of his players, accusing them of lacking technical expertise, mental fortitude and physical resilience.
The smiling, charming Mourinho who arrived at Chelsea declaring himself “a special one” 14 years ago, has long been replaced by a surly, haggered-looking operator, dismissive of any and all questioning of his personal responsibility.
However, a club insider close to the decision told Reuters on Tuesday the notion that “player power” had played any part in his sacking was simply untrue.
“The decision had been entirely down to the way the club have been playing”, the source said, also claiming that Mourinho had been committed to the principle of fast, attacking, high-tempo football for which the club has long been famed.
Mourinho has repeatedly said he cannot compete with the spending power of City and Liverpool, ignoring the fact that he has signed 400 million pounds of talent over the last two years.
He broke the bank to acquire Pogba, yet has struggled to find a way to make best use of him. Romelu Lukaku came in from Everton and has had success in fits and starts but Alexis Sanchez, who earns a reported mind-numbing 400,000 pounds a week, has been an unmitigated disaster.
The defensive numbers also speak for themselves with Mourinho constantly changing his back four. Even inconsistent keeper David de Gea has not been able to patch over the holes.
His selections and tactical approach brought a tsunami of frustrated criticism from former players-turned-pundits and it became a question of when, rather than if, he would go.
“Liverpool are streets ahead,” said former United captain-turned pundit Garry Neville after Sunday’s loss. “I find it staggering. United were awful..it’s not good enough.”
Liverpool fans certainly enjoyed it and their chant of “don’t sack Mourinho” must have made painful listening for the United board.
United, who were drawn against Paris St Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League on Monday, have said they will appoint a caretaker manager within the next 48 hours while they presumably try to earn time to prize a big-name manager away from his current role.
Zinedine Zidane, Mauricio Pochettino and Antonio Conte are among the early bookmakers’ favourites to take over.
Additional reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru, Ossian Shine and Christian Radnedge; editing by Martyn Herman