In terms of attention-grabbing headlines and photographs of Manchester United’s manager looking less than delighted with life, José Mourinho truly is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. Yet amusing as it was to hear the erstwhile Special One complaining that his club have not yet spent enough to compete with the likes of Burnley and Leicester, it must be conceded that Mourinho has a point when he talks of a difference between big clubs and big teams.
United are a big club, he suggested, but not yet a big team. They are trying to become a big team, though that is actually quite difficult when you have already been a big team once and are now trying to put the pieces of the jigsaw back together after a couple of previous managers have had a go.
Mourinho has spent around £260m since taking over at Old Trafford, which is around four or five times the cost of the entire Burnley team, but that is what the have and have not Premier League is like. The essential difference between the clubs is that Burnley have never had any money, far less any plans to rule Europe or compete on a level footing with the best in Spain and Italy, so when Sean Dyche goes shopping he does not visit the same store as Mourinho, perhaps not even the same street or city.
There is absolutely no chance, in other words, of Burnley spending £90m on Paul Pogba, a player United had in the first place but let go for next to nothing. Not because Burnley don’t have £90m to spend on any one player – although naturally they don’t – but because they would never have let him go so cheaply in the first instance. Burnley do business like most clubs do business. They either use their best players or make sure they sell them for the best possible price. What happened to Pogba could only take place at a big club like United, both the letting go and the buying back.
It could never be regarded as an example of good housekeeping, either on Sir Alex Ferguson’s watch or Mourinho’s, though in defence of the latter the two midfielders he had inherited from his predecessors were Marouane Fellaini and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Needing to both stamp his personality on the team and begin building a side that could once again compete for top honours in this country and abroad, Mourinho paid over the odds to bring Pogba back. The following summer he went out and bought Nemanja Matic, another obvious though expensive capture, and one that until a few weeks ago was being hailed as a masterstroke.
Matic did improve United – he would be good in almost any team – but suddenly all the superlatives were being diverted to Manchester City. Until the festive period at least United were in good shape and playing well, as were Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. But playing well is not quite the same as winning 17 matches in a row. No one can compete with that, although if you are Mourinho you can point out that they paid as much for a new set of full backs as most teams spend on strikers. If that seemed unnecessarily curmudgeonly given one of the full backs will miss the season through injury and City have still been winning plaudits for flowing football and solid defending, bear in mind it cannot be easy trying to overhaul United when there is a conspicuously better side not just in the same league but in the same city.
Since Ferguson’s first title-winning side at least, the assumption has always been that a fully-functioning Manchester United, properly funded and sensibly led, would naturally be the strongest team in England. Even Ferguson had to accept second place to Arsenal or Chelsea on occasion, though the interruption to normal service would usually be short and with a few tweaks and a little squad strengthening United would be back on their perch.
That was broadly the imagined scenario when Mourinho moved to Manchester. He might not have been ideal in some ways, he would probably not stay all that long and he would almost certainly attract the wrong sort of publicity, but if he could turn Louis van Gaal’s painfully ponderous side into a version of Chelsea it would at least be a step in the right direction. United would start winning things again, and as soon as that happened they could return to hoovering up the best available talent and generally lording it over the rest of the country.
Whatever you think of José, it was said, he’s a proven winner. If he comes across as more of a proven whinger these days that is entirely down to City blocking off the high ground and forcing everyone else to look upwards. Mourinho is now caught in the middle of a United rebuilding project with no immediate prospect of success. For all the investment, United appear to be little better off than they were under Van Gaal and his three-year plan. There is a residual fondness for the idea that United might trump City’s league success by winning big in Europe, just as they did in 1968, though half a century ago there was only one English team in Europe. Now there are five, and several of them would be confident if drawn against United, partly because Mourinho’s strategy in the big games this season has been so reactive.
When Mourinho said United’s spending so far had not been enough to compete, he meant with City and the top sides around Europe, not Burnley. It was just unfortunate that his comments came after being held at home by everyone’s favourite small-town punchers above their weight.
So what should the club hierarchy do now, especially with January coming up? Back Mourinho to the hilt in the transfer market or put up with the noise from the neighbours for a few more years? Neither option seems particularly appealing but it will have to be one or the other. The one thing big clubs cannot do is go unnoticed. No one talks about it now but Burnley were relegated a couple of years ago. Just shrugged and got on with it. Didn’t even change their manager. That’s where they get much of their team spirit and cohesiveness from, apparently, but it is an avenue closed to United.
When big clubs fail they fail big, because they are always in the spotlight. Were a team like Burnley to finish second to Manchester City it would probably be an occasion for street parties in east Lancashire, whereas for United there would be little cause for any sort of celebration. Because it is now almost five years since Ferguson stood down, and just as long since United looked capable of winning the league. Worse than that, it is becoming evident that all that time City were working to a plan that has now come to fruition, and could continue to yield dividends for some years to come.
It is not yet clear whether Mourinho’s warning that more money will have to be spent is part of a rebuilding programme or merely a diversionary tactic, but United do need a plan at this stage, and it is going to have to be a belter.