At a private dinner in a polished London hotel a few weeks ago, a leading executive at one of the most admired Champions League clubs was speaking about the whole idea of what constitutes good football governance - and how your team stays at the forefront of the game.
His club have recently enjoyed a revival that has put them ahead of rivals, so he was explaining the principles of how such a change can take place.
“It’s like in sailing,” the European official said. “If you just keep doing what the leader does, you’ll never actually catch up. So, you have to innovate. You have to think about everything you’re doing. It’s the only way to get ahead.”
As Manchester United move towards the inevitability of appointing Jose Mourinho, this entire issue of innovation and direction should be something they think about more deeply than anything else. They are not, though, and that is why appointing the Portuguese now could be the wrong move - for reasons far more significant than his football style or all the controversy he continues to attract.
Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward
Image credit: Reuters
The major problem is that United have fallen behind. Their league position, the state of their squad and their naive transfer dealings emphatically prove that. There is almost no football expertise, and none with any decision-making influence, between manager Louis van Gaal and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, and that is a deviation from pretty much any modern European rival - particularly Manchester City.
The likely appointment of Mourinho appears to be a direct response to City’s landmark signing of Pep Guardiola - rather than a response to the process and structure that got the Catalan coach in the first place. United are just trying to copy the most visible move City have made.
Old Trafford sources have even said that, because Guardiola is so good, many feel Mourinho is the only option. Would that even be enough, especially in the long term, given how far behind United are in structural terms?
The Portuguese is undeniably a seductive prospect, and there has long been a feeling of destiny about him and Old Trafford. He is certainly one of the few managers in the game with a CV suitable to the size of the United job, and a CV that rivals Guardiola’s. He is also the only manager in the game to have bested the Catalan in both a domestic title race and the Champions League. He is still one of the best coaches in the game, too, even if there are fair arguments over whether the more barren last six years indicate an ongoing decline since his 2002-10 peak.
Chelsea's Portugese Manager Jose Mourinho (L) and Manchester United's Manager Sir Alex Ferguson
Image credit: AFP
Whether that is true or not, the strong likelihood is that Mourinho would have United properly competing again now, and that is precisely what the hierarchy want. But it is this immediate issue of ‘now’, and what exactly the club’s broader targets are, that should really be driving this debate.
If you were to ask Woodward what United’s long-term plan is - in contrast to the very distinctive projects at City or Bayern Munich - what would the answer be? He’d probably say “winning the biggest trophies”. But how exactly do they envisage doing that, other than throwing big money around and hoping any stars they sign will be successful?
Mourinho has proven himself to be brilliant in such circumstances. That is no back-handed compliment, especially when so many other managers have failed trying exactly those methods. It’s just that, by appointing the former Chelsea boss, United would effectively be putting off having to confront the wider reality.
It is not a stretch to say Mourinho tends to take a short-term approach. What’s more, his entire style is effectively suited to quickly imposing an easily-learned but intensely-applied pragmatic game on top of a squad. It does not really require deeper integration or long-term cohesion, of the sort that usually involves academy players ingrained in a defined philosophy.
Chelsea's Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho takes his seat for the UEFA Champions League Group G football match between Chelsea and Porto
Image credit: AFP
The recent history of European football, however, has emphatically proven that the deeper approach - as excellently exemplified by Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and potentially City - is much more productive and leads to a far higher level of achievement. It essentially means sides have deeper reserves, more ideas, and are capable of so much more.
By choosing Mourinho, United would not be choosing that route. They would just be delaying bigger and even more important decisions. They would be preventing the need to think about innovation - which is badly required.
This is the big concern for United even if Mourinho is a success; this is also the big danger for United if Mourinho does not succeed. Where would they be in 2019, say, if they have not made those long-term plans? Where could City be? Given current trajectories, there could well be an even bigger gap.
There is also another even more significant dimension to this: if Mourinho does arrive, it will strengthen his representative Jorge Mendes’ already significant influence at Old Trafford, and give him unprecedented clout at a big club for an agent.
Jorge Mendes (R) receives "Best Agent of the Year" award during the Globe Soccer Awards Ceremony at Dubai International Sports Conference, in Dubai
Image credit: Reuters
Journalist Diego Torres’ book ‘The Special One’ - about Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid - received a lot of criticism from certain quarters when it came out, but it has been increasingly vindicated by the number of parallels between Mourinho’s spell at the Bernabeu and his last year at Chelsea.
That account also paints an instructive picture of the influence held at Madrid by Mendes, how he effectively had an office at their training base, and explores the amount of players he was able to bring in - half a first team in fact.
This is not necessarily even a problem when a club has an strong existing structure. But United do not. They have an executive vice-chairman who is already enamoured with Mendes. One source tells a story of how, during a meeting, Woodward was so happy to receive a random call from the agent he showed the room.
None of this is to say Mendes’ influence would not produce a winning team. Mourinho’s fine record indicates it probably would. Again, the issue is whether it would produce a truly leading club in the long term. It probably would not.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal with assistant Ryan Giggs
Image credit: Reuters
If many football decisions are outsourced to Mendes, will the willingness really be there to take the long-term decisions?
United are in big need of an entire restructuring. This is not the time to solely be considered about the first-team manager; they should be considering the entire club. It has reached the point where they should be emulating what City did around 2010 and properly investigating intelligent expertise, to innovate and get ahead of the game again.
They should look beyond trying to compete with City now - it's almost gone too far for that. They need to look to the next stage. They should be taking a step back, to see how they can improve the entire structure. That probably involves getting a coach more in tune with a long-term view too: the next big thing, rather than the sure thing.
Otherwise, they could well suffer what has happened to Real Madrid in their eternal battle with Barcelona: they could always be playing catch-up.