Although the festive season is drawing to a close, Jose Mourinho is refusing any visits from ghosts of Old Trafford past. The managerial position at Manchester United is undoubtedly one of the most scrutinised and pressure-packed jobs in all of world football. Perhaps only the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have positions where managers come under equalled criticism for under-performing. The major difference between the clubs however, is that when called upon to replicate the previous manager’s success, United have always fallen short. Has Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign left a daunting burden that united can’t shake off? Will Mourinho will be yet another manager to underachieve in the shadow of the ultimate predecessor? Not on his watch.
Stubborn, arrogant and defiant. Just a few characteristics that have been associated with Mourinho over the years. Characteristics that when combined with tactical genius, provide the ultimate steel to dodge the press’s criticism completely unscathed, week in, week out. Let’s be clear about one thing, when I say unscathed, by no means do I mean that Mourinho isn’t condemned by the press. As we all know, whoever has donned the title of Manchester United manager is instantly placed into the lion’s den of criticism and slander. For a lot of clubs, the omnipresent judgement of the media can be the ultimate downfall of a manager. However, for United, things are different as there is a greater pressure, a heavier burden and that lies in the legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson. The success that the scotsman brought to the club is hailed as one of the greatest achievements by a single manager. Alas, where there is success, there must too be failure. The sheer magnitude of the history created by Sir Alex carries negatives as well as positives and the pressure it has created is uniquely synonymous with Manchester United. Ferguson’s monumental record seemed to hang over the heads of heads of his successors, looming like a ghost of the past.
Of course, David Moyes was the first and arguably the best example of this. He recently stated in a pre-match conference for this boxing day’s tie between United and Sunderland that “I don’t think whoever had taken over from Sir Alex would have had an easy ride. Whether it had been Jose then or Carlo Ancelotti or Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola or David Moyes, I think it would have been a difficult job for whoever took over.” Moyes’ comments highlight exactly the dangers that following a legacy like Ferguson’s present. Those dangers being inescapable scrutiny and inevitable failure. I frequently refer to Moyes’ tenure as that of the “sacrificial lamb”, purely for the fact that there was only ever one outcome for his initial successor and that was to be brought forward for the slaughter that endless comparisons put forwarded by the cutthroat British media. Moyes clearly was aware of this and his reign lasted a mere ten months.
By the time Louis Van Gaal had taken the reins, not much had changed at Old Trafford. United had ended the season on a low as they slumped to a miserable seventh place. Now although I am firm believer that Van Gaal and Moyes were dealt the same fate by Ferguson’s expectations, they both tried to tackle it in different ways. Where Moyes lay down and let the press roll over him like a steam train, Van Gaal, like Mourinho, stayed stubborn. His aggressive and defiant attitude was clear but eventually, cracks appeared and the expectations left behind by Ferguson seemed to eventually engulf Van Gaal, smothering his run in a cloud of underachievement. This eventual buckle under pressure combined with the drab, negative football were just some of the reasons why Van Gaal fell victim to the reputation of the ultimate predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson.
As great as United’s past is, Mourinho understands how the team, fans and even hierarchy must accept that it is time to move on. Mourinho clearly understands the magnitude of not only the change of Manchester United, but the change of the premier league too. This whole attitude of wiping the slate clean could be pivotal for Mourinho’s success at Old Trafford. His balance between the right levels of embrace and detachment with the club’s past is exactly why I believe that Jose Mourinho won’t be another pawn to fall victim to the ultimate predecessor’s legacy.