Every club likes to think it does things a little differently. They glorify their idiosyncrasies into something greater, an identity. West Ham United, for instance, is the self-proclaimed Academy of Football.
Arsenal in the Arsene Wenger age play up their development of young talent. Manchester United speak of the ‘United Way.’
It’s a burden that has weighed heavily round the neck of every manager to have succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson over the past three years. A certain standard is expected of whoever sits in the Old Trafford hot seat, and that seat has been hotter than most since the Scot’s retirement.
David Moyes didn’t understand what it meant, not even lasting the season as his side became more and more insipid, more and more tragic. This was not the ‘United Way.’ Louis Van Gaal was appointed on his credentials of delivering such an ideology, but something went badly wrong along the way. His team were even Moysier than Moyes’. He didn’t get the ‘United Way’ either.
Now Jose Mourinho is grappling with the term, attempting to prove he can impose the attacking style of football that has been the antithesis of his entire career up until now. Well, he was attempting to prove as much before last week’s death draw against Liverpool at Anfield. He didn’t just park the bus at the home of United’s greatest rivals, he clamped it (and in typical Mourinho-manner had the gall to blame Jurgen Klopp for producing such a dull game).
At Chelsea Mourinho tried to do similar, setting up his team to soak up and hit out. Of course, it didn’t work out that way, with Chelsea panning in the windows of United’s parked bus, winning 4-0 to inflict an embarrassing defeat on their former manager. Those who doubted from the very start that Mourinho could change his ways at United were vindicated.
But the criticism that came Mourinho’s way after the loss at Stamford Bridge targeted his style of play as much as the result itself. This was not the way a Manchester United team should play, particularly in a game of such magnitude.
Jose Mourinho walked over to the Stretford End to apologise to the Man United fans after losing 4-0 to Chelsea.
— Ammad (@Ammadutd) October 26, 2016
Ferguson would never have done this. That, more than anything else, proves his unsuitability to be the club’s manager.
But Mourinho has no duty to play the ‘United Way,’ whatever that truly means, because the ‘United Way’ doesn’t exist and hasn’t done for a long, long time. If Ferguson is held aloft as the guardian of the club’s famed philosophy, revisionism has blurred the collective memory of the manager the Scot really was.
He, just like Mourinho, was guilty of parking the proverbial bus on the biggest occasion. Take 2012’s trip to the Etihad Stadium to face Manchester City with the Premier League title on the line. Rather than go for a win that would have ultimately seen United lift another title, he attempted to play for the draw. It didn’t work. United lost, not just the match, but the championship to City.
In fact, Ferguson’s final years at Old Trafford were defined by pragmatic, often conservative, play. Sure, United’s greatest triumphs under the Scot might have been provided by enthralling moments of pure drama, but he was more than willing to do as Mourinho has done in recent weeks. Nobody threw the ‘United Way’ tagline at Ferguson, so why should his successors be treated any differently?
Of course, whether Mourinho’s ultra-conservative approach is making best use of the talent he has at his disposal is another matter. United’s defence has been a glaring weakness for years, so it is rather peculiar that their manager should look to base his entire game plan on it. United boast one of the most potent strike forces in the game right now, so why not use it?
Against Manchester City in Wednesday night’s EFL Cup clash Mourinho’s United side were certainly more effective, but their victory was very much one in the mould of their manager.
Mata is special but Ander is just so selfless
Can’t get tired of watching this goal
— United Zone (@UtdZone) October 27, 2016
A 1-0 victory over your closest rivals will always go down well, but not even a derby win was enough to cool the simmering unsettlement at Old Trafford. The conservative hallmarks of the new man in charge were still apparent.
However, any criticism of Mourinho and the way his team plays must separate itself from the unrealistic, and intangible, standard set by the so-called, and mythical, ‘United Way.’ That’s not to say the Portuguese should be immune to scrutiny. He deserves to be placed under examination following recent results and performances. Just don’t say he has a responsibility to play a certain way; especially when that way doesn’t actually exist.