In recent weeks, pundits have revealed that Jose Mourinho has earned less points (54) from his first 29 games in charge than the much-maligned Louis Van Gaal (56).
While this has caused a fuss on social media, however, it does not tell the whole story of Mourinho’s tenure or the direction that the club is moving in under the Portuguese’s stewardship.
It is therefore important to consider the season in context, and appraise what may lie ahead in the years ahead.
Why United May Be Moving in the Right Direction
In many ways, Mourinho was the wrong man at the right time for United, as the club reached the point where the Portuguese managers’ ethos and winning mentality far outweighed any stylistic and philosophical concerns shared by the United hierarchy. This has been borne out during his first season, as while he has struggled manfully to create an attacking side that plays on the front foot his team has become increasingly intense, reliable and difficult to beat.
A 22-game unbeaten run in the EPL (which began after the Red’s harrowing 4-0 thrashing at Stamford Bridge), is evidence of United’s increased mental strength, while the fact that they have controlled most of these matches also augers well for their future. Beyond this, however, Mourinho has cultivated a winning mentality that has already delivered the League Cup and may yet yield the Europa League before the season is out.
In this respect, all talk of points gained and comparison’s with Van Gaal seems a little tenuous. Yes the Dutchman finished fourth in his first season, but he faced much less competition from rival sides and also finished trophyless. The Dutchman claimed the FA Cup in his second season, but his charges only managed to finish fifth in the league and produced a succession of turgid performances that cost him his job.
Given that Mourinho could yet win two trophies this season and qualify for the Champions League (while also adding some world class players to the squad), it may be better to judge him at the end of the year.
Has Winning Become Unfashionable in the Premier League?
On a wider note, some of the criticism of Mourinho (though not all of it by any means) hints at a more worrying trend in the Premier League. More specifically, clubs appear to be increasingly unconcerned with the concept of winning, with many content to secure a top four place and the lucrative bounty of Champions League football ahead of silverware. While this may be understandable in part, it hardly seems fair to judge managers or teams that continue to prioritise winning knockout games and tournaments.
The same principle applies to playing styles, as while clubs like Arsenal place a huge emphasis on adhering to a stylistic vision they also struggle to be adaptable in order to win ugly. There is nothing wrong with changing your style to suit your opponent or looking to dominate space as opposed to the ball, however, as such flexibility is crucial to winning games consistently at the highest level.
This seems strange, particularly when you consider that Premier League clubs spent more than £1 billion last summer. The fact remains that club justify such expenditure with their style of play and by reaching the Champions League, however, rather than a return in the form of trophies. This is a sign of the times, sure, but the notion of winning becoming unfashionable in the top-flight can hardly be good for the game.
The Last Word: Why We Should Celebrate Winning and Stylistic Clashes
If nothing else, it is clashes of styles that often make great games, while the game is richer when pragmatic characters like Diego Someone and Mourinho go head-to-head with artisans such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. We should therefore celebrate these differences, while also reinforcing the importance that tactical flexibility plays in winning on a regular basis.
Who knows, reinforcing the value of winning (and by virtue, occasionally winning ugly) may also help our national team, which constantly seems to be besieged and hesitant in the heat of a important knockout game.
Perhaps if we gave Champions League place to the victors of the League and the FA Cup instead of the third and fourth place teams in the Premier League, we would see winning once again take pride of place in the English game.