The look on Jose Mourinho’s face was priceless as he shook hands with Antonio Conte following Man Utd’s 2-1 victory over Chelsea in February. The two managers have been at one another’s throats all season and Mourinho was smugness personified as he dismissed his foe with a playful clip around the ear before basking in the adulation of the Old Trafford faithful. If he can secure another victory against his former employers in Saturday’s FA Cup final, he could salvage Man Utd’s season, and those fans might forgive him for presiding over a testing campaign.
Right now the supporter base is somewhat restless. It is a mark of the grandeur of this club that fans are disappointed with the way this season has panned out. After all, Mourinho has just guided Man Utd to their best league finish since Sir Alex Ferguson retired five years ago. They seized the runner-up spot ahead of strong teams like Liverpool and Spurs, and they finished 11 points clear of defending champions Chelsea. Their haul of 81 points would have been good enough to land them the title in 2016, and in 2011, but they could not get close to Man City. Still, they beat Pep Guardiola’s men 3-2 in April and that meant they secured victory against every single Premier League side this season.
Man Utd are clearly on an upward curve. They finished fifth last season, with 69 points, and this time around they picked up an extra seven wins to surge up the table. They are also a force to be reckoned with in knockout competitions: they won the EFL Cup and the Europa League last season, and now they have another cup final to look forward to. Mourinho is still a master of the mind games and he retains the tactical ingenuity to get the better of any manager in the world. As such, Man Utd are the clear favourites in the spread betting markets to beat Chelsea on Sunday.
But Man Utd are not a normal club and Ferguson set an exceptionally high standard. That has led to intense scrutiny being placed on those that have followed him and David Moyes flopped, while Louis van Gaal’s tenure cannot be branded a success either. Man Utd fans have grown so accustomed to success that finishing a season in second place is met with a grimace. However, many of their gripes are understandable. The club has forked out astronomical sums to bolster the squad in recent transfer windows, from breaking the world record to sign Paul Pogba to making Alexis Sanchez the Premier League’s highest-paid player, and they should not be finishing 19 points behind City, even if Guardiola has outspent Mourinho. Defeats against Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield were hard to take.
They flopped in the League Cup, vanquished by lowly Bristol City, and they somehow contrived a way to lose to a poor Sevilla side over two legs in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Now fans have to watch on as Liverpool are showered with praise by pundits ahead of their Champions League final against Real Madrid. The case of Liverpool brings us to the crux of the anti-Mourinho sentiment among fans. There is said to be a Man Utd way of playing, driven by Ferguson, whereby the team is supposed to play on the front foot, take risks, attack and exhibit thrilling football. That is the sort of football Liverpool are playing under Klopp. They often lose, but it is typically entertaining, high-octane stuff. That sort of football is totally alien to Mourinho.
Of course, the board knew this when they recruited him. This is the man for whom the phrase “parking the bus” was invented. He has enjoyed phenomenal success in his carrer, winning the league title with every club he has managed and landing the Champions League with Porto and Inter, but it has rarely been pretty. Brutally effective, yes, but not particularly easy on the eye. Some fans, it seems, would rather lose pretty than win ugly, but ask any Arsenal fan and you will learn that such a philosophy quickly grows tiresome.
Mourinho is a winner and he does not care how he achieves that end. He has already secured silverware at Old Trafford and if he wins the FA Cup on Saturday this season really should be viewed as a success. There is no great shame in finishing second in the table behind a team that just broke the record for securing the highest Premier League points tally in history. If they claim another trophy and the campaign ends with Man Utd players draped in medals and jumping around in jubilation at Wembley, you have to give Mourinho credit.
Man City’s air of invincibility diminished in the latter stages of the season as Liverpool beat them three times and then Man Utd clinched that 3-2 victory thanks to Pogba’s brace. They are an excellent team, but they are not as far ahead of Man Utd as some have claimed. Next season Mourinho could well continue his record of having won the league title at every club he has managed. He has the bones of a great team and a couple more signings could see Man Utd overhaul the noisy neighbours. Winning the FA Cup on Saturday would provide a great springboard for further success, and it would take a brave man to bet against Mourinho vanquishing Conte once more.