It's hard to believe I'm writing this post. Four years ago, I was as anti-Mourinho as they come, and to my eternal shame, preferred David Moyes over Mourinho to manage Manchester United (though I would have taken Ancelotti or Guardiola over Moyes any day). 12 months ago, I'd come round to the view that Mourinho was the right man for the job, but still found myself conflicted. Things change. A year later, I'm solidly of the opinion that things are headed in the right direction. But while I've become more confident, there's an ongoing debate among United fans about how to evaluate Mourinho's first season. More often than not, I hear the argument that if Mourinho fails to win the Europa League, the season must be considered worse than Van Gaal's achievement of finishing fifth in the league and winning the FA Cup. I completely disagree, for two reasons:
1. Focus on process, not on results: This is something I've covered in many other posts (whether in investing, football, or both). As important as results are, they're rarely instantaneous. We have to figure out ways to measure progress in the interim. For long stretches of the Van Gaal era, it was an awful slog to watch the football. Scoring goals has been a curious challenge this season, but the performances have, for the most part, been much easier on the eye. And while it chafes that the team's long unbeaten run wasn't matched by league points, it at least indicates a stronger spine and mentality - one that was sorely lacking in the Moyes/Van Gaal eras, as middling teams would come to Old Trafford and record historic victories.
I also think it's easy to neglect some very hard work that has been necessary as part of this process. First, the team was denied a meaningful pre-season. Commercial interests are important, but a shockingly poor tour to China was scant preparation for the season. Second - and I feel quite strongly about this - is that fans are neglecting the masterful job Mourinho did in easing Rooney out of the way. Rooney's decline had the potential to cause a major dressing room rift. The fact that Rooney has become a non-issue is a major, major coup for Mourinho, and further proof that he has the political savvy necessary for this job. Offloading high wage earners like Rooney and Schweinsteiger sets the stage for a productive summer reshaping the team (another debate for another time, but I don't understand the Schweini obsession).
2. Measure results the right way: If you're going to focus on results, I think it should at least be done methodically. Success is a continuum, not binary. If United finished 2nd in the league, and lost in the finals of the Europa League, FA Cup and EFL Cup, would we consider the season a failure? Well, perhaps it would show the lack of a killer instinct, but I still think most people would recognize a reasonable season and a strong upward trajectory. So, the notion that Mourinho's season hinges on a single game doesn't sit well with me.
Here's how I think about it. Putting "process" aside, you could still score the manager on results in a way that's less binary. For example:
- Premier League: 20 points for winning, 8 points for finishing 2nd-4th, 3 points for finishing 5th-6th, 0 below that
- Champions League: 20 points for winning, 8 points for finishing 2nd, 3 points for being in the semi-finals, 0 below that
- Europa League: 15 points for winning, 5 points for finishing 2nd, 3 points for being in the semi-finals, 0 below that
- FA Cup: 10 points for winning, 3 points for finishing 2nd, 1 point for being in the semi-finals, 0 below that
- EFL Cup: 8 points for winning, 3 points for finishing 2nd, 1 point for being in the semi-finals, 0 below that
The number of points is of course subjective but represent my view on the competitions in a consistent way. I highly recommend every fan go through this exercise (making sure that you're being consistent within and across competitions).
By this math, here's how the last 10 seasons look: (PL = Premier League; FAC = FA Cup; LC = League/EFL Cup, CL = Champions League, EL = Europa League)
SAF 2007-08: 40 points (PL - 1st, CL - 1st)
SAF 2008-09: 37 points (PL - 1st, FAC - SF, LC - 1st, CL - 2nd)
SAF 2009-10: 16 points (PL - 2nd, LC - 1st)
SAF 2010-11: 28 points (PL - 1st, CL - 2nd)
SAF 2011-12: 8 points (PL - 2nd)
SAF 2012-13: 20 points (PL - 1st)
Moyes 2013-14: 0 points (ugh)
LvG 2014-15: 8 points (PL - 4th)
LvG 2015-16: 13 points (PL - 5th, FAC - 1st)
Mourinho 2016-17: Min 16 points (PL - 6th, EL - 2nd, LC - 1st), max 26 points (PL - 5th, EL - 1st, LC - 1st)
While my points system is admittedly subjective, it feels generally right in comparing different seasons, identifying Fergie's poorer seasons. So you'll see why it's very hard for me to understand the argument that Mourinho's season could be deemed worse than Van Gaal's if United were to lose in the Europa League final, even based on results.
None of this is to ignore the failings of the season. The inability to score goals and the number of draws have been frustrating. The football has occasionally been defensive, bordering on soporific, particularly in the last 6 weeks. It's dispiriting to finish below City and Liverpool in the league. And we're still clearly a class apart from the best teams on the continent. But Mourinho's first season has me more hopeful than any other point since November 2013 (when I officially threw in the towel on the Moyes era). I still think Jose's playing the way that United should - even if it's taking longer than fans would have hoped.