As Jose Mourinho gets handed his walking papers, the most damning thing about Manchester United is not that they’re in sixth place, it’s that they should be considerably worse than that.
Usually, when a team like United become bad, there are some unspoken quotation marks around the word. They aren’t bad in some absolute, they’re bad compared to expectations. The sixth best team in the Premier League is still pretty good. It’s just that being sixth best isn’t, and shouldn’t be, good enough for Manchester United.
But, despite sitting sixth in the table, United are not the sixth best team in the Premier League. Their expected goals numbers paint a much darker picture. Their xG per game of 1.19 per match is only ninth best in the league. Their opponents’ xG of 1.29 is 11th best. There was a time when you might excuse a Mourinho side’s lack of attack because they deployed an incredibly stingy defense. Not anymore. Their xG difference of negative. 0.10 per match is only 11th best in the Premier League. That’s not only not good enough for Manchester United, it’s not good enough for teams whose ambitions top out at qualifying for the Europa League.
If this United team was not only in sixth place, but actually had the underlying numbers to match the sixth place results it might be possible to make a compelling case to stay the course with Mourinho. Sixth place is, of course, a massive step backwards from the side’s second place finish last season. But that second place finish was itself largely aided by all sorts of unsustainable factors. United’s xG difference last year was 0.49 per match, the fifth best in the league. If they were achieving that total again this season it would still be the fifth best total in the league.
The primary issue for United, and for Jose Mourinho, isn’t that they’ve regressed to their numbers, it’s that those numbers have themselves declined significantly. That’s especially damning given that it’s roughly the same set of players that Mourinho had under his care last year. The same players are playing demonstrably worse.
One of the truisms of analytics is that by and large teams play to their talent levels, and that by and large teams’ talent levels are determined by how much money they spend (although not just on transfer fees, wages are a major, often overlooked, factor here). When that relationship breaks down in a negative way, it’s a sign that something needs to change. Of course, when it breaks down in a positive way you get stories like Leicester City or Monaco winning extremely unlikely trophies and we all get to celebrate the wonder of sports.
Firing Mourinho is a reasonable response to the marked decline in United’s performance this season. There’s plenty to question in his decision making. He started the season feuding with Anthony Martial, spent the entire year yanking possibly his best defender in Eric Bailly around, and finished his tumultuous half season by making a habit of benching Paul Pogba. The only player who seemed immune from Mourinho’s perpetual lineup mixing and matching was the piece of burnt toast formerly known as Nemanja Matic.
But, while Mourinho being shown the door solves one problem, a larger one remains. Why, exactly, is a team with the resources of Manchester United topping out at fifth best underlying numbers. That’s a larger problem than just Mourinho. United could play significantly better than they have been but also remain way behind where they should be. That’s not going to change simply by replacing Mourinho’s glowering visage.
The problem of misspending at United has persisted across various managerial regimes. At one point the cause was clear. By the tie Sir Alex Ferguson retired, the squad had been hollowed out and aged well past it’s sell by date. It was only the United legend’s genius that kept them near the top. A rebuild was desperately needed. But that was 5.5 years ago. There’s been a year of Moyes, two of Van Gaal, and now 2.5 of Mourinho. The club’s squad is still a misshapen mess.
Shape the team a little bit differently and sure, you’d get a contender for top four. A wide open attack with Pogba moving the ball through midfield, and having Martial, Lukaku and Rashford or Sanchez ahead of him would at least be fun. But they’d still have fullbacks that are either entirely untested like Dalot, or entirely in their 30s like Young and Valencia manning the flanks. They’d still have a center back pairing, whichever one got run out there made up of guys who couldn’t get the job done under Mouriho’s conservatism now being asked to patrol more space with less protection.
The squad needs to be fixed. The entire backline needs to be upgraded. The collection of midfielders not name Pogba needs to be upgraded. Only the collection of attacking talent is up to snuff for a team with the money and ambitions of United. So, while changing managers, and bringing in somebody who will emphasize that talent, rather than minimizing it, will do work to get the most out of this talent, it will not fix the problem of the team not having enough good players in enough positions across the pitch.
Now, again, some of this is Mourinho’s fault. Mourinho was involved in transfer policy, just as Van Gaal was before him, and just as Moyes brought in Marouane Fellaini (who’s going to outlive us all at United) before that. And the changing of transfer policies, combined with the changing of managers, all of whom have different styles and different objectives and different approaches has left United permanently chasing it’s own squad building tail. It’s fine to want to be a club that specializes in buying big ticket stars. When money is no object, swooping for Alexis Sanchez because you can, has its merits.
United’s problem has become that they want to keep buying cherries for the top of a sundae that melted half a decade ago. Until that gets fixed and the team does the unsexy work of replenishing their defense and defensive midfield, there’s only so high any change in manager will take them.
Mourinho needs to go. The decline in performance from last year to this year is an unforgivable sin. It’s one that he’s largely responsible for. But, the fact that United hasn’t actually been good in over half a decade, that’s down to bigger factors. And, unless something changes, that means we’ll just be back here in a year or two doing this song and dance all over again.