Manchester United has fired manager José Mourinho, which shouldn’t come as a great shock considering the state of the club these days. The Red Devils are in sixth place, 19 points off the Premier League lead and closer in the standings to 13th-place Brighton than they are to fifth-place Arsenal. Last year they finished second, which nobody’s going to remember because Manchester City won the title by 19 points. In 2016-17, United won the League Cup and Europa League but finished in sixth place, seven points out of the Champions League places and 24 points off the title. In other words, they were like Roy Hodgson’s Fulham with a better kit deal.
No ordinary manager could survive a track record like that, not at the biggest club in England. Particularly not after being given a squad of world-class players, including Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, the two most expensive Premier League signings of all time. Particularly not after those two and a half years were defined by intraclub disharmony, inscrutable personnel decisions, and all manner of other messy and dramatic managerial behavior.
But Mourinho isn’t an ordinary manager—he’s the Special One. So special, in fact, that he managed to coin that hilariously grandiose nickname for himself. Therefore, it’s all the more humbling that on Tuesday, United fired Mourinho, evicting the Special One from the smoldering crater he called his fortress. That crater is the result of crashing his own declining reputation into United’s declining empire, and screwing the whole disintegrating hulk into the earth.
The question now is not only who will be the next man to get his hands on the professional booby prize that the Manchester United job has become, but also how much damage Mourinho has done, and where he goes from here.
Manchester United is the first major managerial post in which Mourinho has failed so comprehensively. Even his contentious tenure at Real Madrid, where his rivalry with Pep Guardiola blossomed into a decade-defining battle, resulted in a league title. Almost three years ago to the day, Chelsea fired Mourinho with the club in circumstances similar to those Manchester United finds itself in, but Mourinho had brought them a league title just one season before.
Mourinho’s United never truly challenged for the Premier League and never won a Champions League knockout round. That might fly at some clubs, but not at Manchester United, which Sir Alex Ferguson built into a global juggernaut. Over the course of his 26-season tenure, Ferguson won the Champions League twice and the Premier League 13 times. Ferguson began his tenure at Old Trafford in 1986 with English soccer in a post-Heysel wilderness and ended it with English soccer as a fully globalized juggernaut, with Manchester United at the top of the pyramid.
At Manchester United, Ferguson coached winning teams not just through the rise of the internet and the cable-sports bubble, but also through the introduction of the back-pass rule, squad numbers, and the Premier League itself. His first title-winning team, 1992-93, featured Eric Cantona and Bryan Robson, while his last, in 2012-13, featured Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck.
Manchester United has never recovered from his departure. Ferguson’s hand-picked successor, former Everton boss David Moyes, lasted less than a year. Mourinho’s old mentor, Louis Van Gaal, finished fourth and fifth in his two seasons at Old Trafford. But Mourinho was supposed to be the one to right the ship; he’d always brought along an inconvenient degree of controversy, but he’d won everywhere he’d been. Instead, the Special One skipped the title and went straight to the collapse and weird exit. Since Ferguson left, United hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinal of the Champions League or come within 15 points of a Premier League title. That trend looks like it’s going to continue for a sixth consecutive season, no matter who takes over for Mourinho. (Former United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, currently the manager of Molde in his native Norway, is one rumored caretaker candidate. Other betting favorites, for this season and beyond, include former Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, former United midfielder and Mourinho assistant Michael Carrick, and former United defender and France manager Laurent Blanc.)
The good news for United is that during Ferguson’s tenure, the Premier League and UEFA skewed soccer’s financial structure such that it’s hard for Manchester United to fall far for long. We’ve seen Manchester United’s rivals bounce back from similar situations. If nothing else, there’s zero risk of Manchester United following rivals Leeds United on the drop from the Champions League to the third division. More recently, after Champions League–winning manager Rafa Benitez departed in 2010, Liverpool finished sixth or worse six times in seven years. Now, under third-year manager Jürgen Klopp, they’re atop the Premier League table and perhaps the most fashionable club in the country once more. Even after dumping Mourinho in 2015, Chelsea bounced back to win the title the very next year under Antonio Conte.
And Manchester United has greater cachet and financial resources than either Liverpool or Chelsea. Even in the darkest post-Ferguson days, they’ve been able to attract expensive talent: Aside from Pogba and Lukaku, defender Luke Shaw and forward Anthony Martial both broke transfer records for teenagers, while Brazilian midfielder Fred cost £47 million this past summer. Maybe a new manager would get more out of those players, because Mourinho has targeted both Pogba and Shaw for special derision, while at one point or another both Martial and Fred have been unable to get off the bench. Mourinho’s always been a hard manager to please, but at Manchester United his petty and mercurial behavior made him look less like a Machiavellian genius and more like a petty tyrant.
Which may not bode well for his managerial future. Mourinho built his reputation as a uniquely talented mercenary leader, moving from one continental giant to another, wringing out unprecedented success, and moving on. That reputation is now in distress, if not entirely obsolete.
There was a time not too long ago when Mourinho seemed able to tilt the soccer world on its axis just by sheer force of charisma. The European media adored him not just because he’s a relentlessly quotable polyglot, but because his willingness to play the bad guy made him a positively dashing antihero. He taunted opponents, bucked tradition, and swashbuckled through his established competition: Faced with Mourinho, the pugnacious Ferguson turned into a stodgy elder statesman; the affable Benitez into a punch line; and the urbane and cerebral Arsène Wenger into a corncob.
I loved vintage Mourinho, even as he smugly beat the shit out of my beloved Wenger’s increasingly hapless Arsenal. Mourinho was a showman, a cad, and above all a tactical genius. He led Porto to the Champions League title in 2004, and is to this day the last manager to coach a similarly heavy underdog to the top of the European club game. His first Premier League title at Chelsea was the club’s first top-flight trophy in 50 years, and his Champions League triumph at Inter was the club’s first in 45 years.
Along the way, his Inter took out Guardiola’s Barcelona in the semifinal, and playing the last hour of the second leg down a man and on the road, Mourinho’s nerazzurri blunted Barcelona’s attack. It was one of the greatest tactical achievements of the century and established Mourinho as the cynical foil to Guardiola’s brand of manic sanctimony.
But it also established Mourinho as the Guy, not the Guy Who’s Trying to Beat the Guy, and he’s spent the 2010s straining under that burden, not only at Manchester United but before that at Real Madrid. Throughout his rivalry with Guardiola, Mourinho has won numerous memorable battles but lost the war. On the field, Mourinho’s teams are best on the defense, as counterpunchers, while Guardiola’s teams need to hold the initiative. But off the field, structurally, the reverse has been true. Guardiola is most comfortable helming gigantic clubs with immense structural advantages—Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City. Mourinho, however, needs to be an outsider, always on the attack. At Porto, Chelsea, and Inter, he was a one-man Visigoth invasion, capable of tearing down the castle from the outside. At Real Madrid and Manchester United, Mourinho was never able to replicate that kind of success—not even relative to club resources, but even in absolute terms—and he proved himself more than capable of tearing down the castle on the inside.
Nevertheless, Mourinho has built up enough professional credibility to be choosy about his next job. After two disappointing tenures among the global elite, will he hold out for an opening at someplace like Bayern Munich or PSG? Maybe he’ll even return to Real Madrid, which is sputtering after Zidane’s departure. (Real recently handed manager Santiago Solari a contract that runs through 2021, but a club of that financial means would have no problem sending Solari packing if a better option presented itself.) Or will Mourinho step down a level and return to the kind of club where he found his greatest success—a brash up-and-comer, where he can rediscover his own mojo?
Mourinho has at least one more great soccer institution to tear down. The question now is whether that will be some unspecified future opponent, or whether the last great thing he’ll destroy will be himself.