Jose Mourinho has been sacked by Manchester United following Sunday’s 3-1 loss to Liverpool, but where did it all go wrong for him at Old Trafford?
The defeat at Anfield left United 19 points off the top with less than half of the season played – making it their worst start to a season since 1990.
Here, we look at the problems that contributed to Mourinho’s downfall.
The breakdown of Mourinho’s relationship with Paul Pogba will be remembered as a symbol of his Manchester United reign. Mourinho said the Frenchman could be “the heart of the club” for the next decade when he completed his £89m return to Old Trafford in 2016, but it did not take long for tensions to surface. Once they had, they would not go away.
The problems date back to last season, when Pogba was dropped following a 2-0 loss to Tottenham at the end of January. Mourinho played down talks of a rift between them, but Pogba was said to be shocked by the decision and it proved not to be a one-off. Mourinho kept Pogba on the bench as United were knocked out of the Champions League by Sevilla.
The situation was not helped by Pep Guardiola’s revelation in April that Mino Raiola had offered Pogba to Manchester City during the previous transfer window, and the tensions simmered throughout the summer. Pogba returned having lifted the World Cup with France, but his elation was short-lived as his relationship with Mourinho deteriorated.
Pogba was stripped of the vice-captaincy in September and has now lost his place in the team altogether – starting just three of their last eight games in all competitions. It was telling that he did not even make it off the bench in the 3-1 loss to Liverpool.
The bad blood between Mourinho and United’s was one of the biggest contributors to the negative atmosphere around the club, but it also underlined the fact that Mourinho was unable to get the best out of United’s record signing. Pogba blossomed at Juventus but his inconsistency at United suggested he did not respond to Mourinho’s tough-love approach.
Pogba, of course, was not the only player Mourinho rowed with. In his first two seasons at Old Trafford, his harsh treatment of Luke Shaw not only deprived Manchester United of one of their best young players, but also upset other members of the squad. Would it not have been in everyone’s interests for the situation to be handled more sensitively?
Anthony Martial was another frequent target for criticism. Last summer, the Frenchman was even reproached for leaving United’s pre-season tour of the United States to be at the birth of his second child. Like Pogba, he did not respond well to the harsh treatment, and consequently never looked like fulfilling his huge potential under Mourinho.
Mourinho’s barbs often felt needless. After the penalty shootout defeat by Derby in the Carabao Cup in September, for example, he took aim at Phil Jones, who missed the decisive penalty, and Eric Bailly, who was due to take the next one. “I knew we were going to be in trouble with Jones and with Eric,” he said.
Even old favourites have come under fire. Mourinho described Antonio Valencia as the world’s best right-back in January 2017 and praised him as Manchester United’s “silent leader” last season, but he has fallen dramatically out of favour since he was accused of returning to pre-season overweight in the summer. Mourinho’s side missed his leadership.
Manchester United’s playing style was another major bone of contention under Mourinho. At a time when their direct rivals were captivating supporters with adventurous, high-intensity and – crucially – attacking football, Mourinho remained stubbornly devoted to a conservative approach focused on nullifying opponents.
It seemed he was ready to throw off the shackles when United hit 33 goals in their first 10 games of last season, but he reverted to type for their trip to Anfield that October. The goalless draw was a credible result, but the cautious approach showed Mourinho’s priorities and it hit United’s momentum, too. The following week, they were beaten 2-1 by Huddersfield.
While Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and, increasingly, Arsenal are playing with easily definable styles, United’s remains inconsistent. A lack of intensity means they rank well below their rivals for sprints and distance covered. Mourinho never appeared to know his best team, either. Performances were often disjointed.
The goal totals are revealing. Since the start of the 2016/17 season, when Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford, United have only scored 97 Premier League goals. None of the top-six have hit fewer. United’s total is closer to Brighton and Burnley’s than it is to Manchester City’s.
On Sunday at Anfield, United produced another sterile performance against top opposition, mustering just four shots on goal to Liverpool’s 36. The numbers reflect poorly on Mourinho given the firepower available to him.
Manchester United spent more than £400m in transfer fees under Mourinho and the expenditure is considerably higher when you throw in the eye-watering fees and wages involved in the ‘free transfer’ deals for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexis Sanchez. Despite all the investment, however, the squad remains imbalanced.
The biggest issues lie in the centre of defence. Mourinho has made it clear that he was denied a new centre-back in the summer, but United are entitled to be cautious given the struggles of Bailly and Victor Lindelof. Mourinho had high hopes for the pair, who cost a combined £60m, but things have not worked out for them.
Bailly and Lindelof are not the only signings to have struggled. Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived at Old Trafford off the back of a stunning season with Borussia Dortmund but never got much of a chance under Mourinho, while Sanchez has been an even bigger disappointment since joining from Arsenal, scoring just four goals in 30 appearances so far.
Sunday’s game against Liverpool was another damning reflection of United’s transfer business under Mourinho. While they laboured on the pitch, the £89m Pogba was an unused substitute and the £52m Fred was not even selected in the matchday squad. United’s squad still looks like it requires considerable surgery but another manager could surely get more out of the players who are there.