Jose Mourinho is in an identical position to the one he put Sir Alex Ferguson in 12 years ago; Second best against a financially stronger opponent, conceding defeat in the league before the spring and enduring a turbulent summer as sections of the media fawn over the newer kids on the block.
In 2006, Ferguson’s mood soured when he was reported saying Chelsea were ‘hell-bent on ruining football’ during pre-season at Turffontein Racecourse in South Africa.
“It’s unfortunate that you can’t go to a dinner nowadays without someone sneakily reporting everything you’ve said,” Ferguson lamented.
Many United supporters were lamenting the World Cup fall-out between Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney in Gelsenkirchen. Ronaldo returned to Alderley Edge to find his windows smashed and was angling to join Real Madrid and Ferguson had declared Ruud van Nistelrooy – United’s greatest modern goalscorer – persona non grata.
‘Love United hate Glazer’ stickers decorated Old Trafford and David Gill promised ‘two world-class signings’. United bought Michael Carrick and Tomasz Kuszczak as they baulked at a joint deal for Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, ideal options for a team devoid of Van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane.
The punchline? United were top for all but two weeks of the season and became champions with two games to spare. The season was soundtracked to a festive tune:
Mourinho, are you listening?
You better keep our trophy glistening,
‘Cause we’ll be back in May to take it away,
Walking in a Fergie wonderland.
Come United’s penultimate fixture at Stamford Bridge, John Terry, Claude Makelele and Michael Essien formed a guard of honour for Dong Fangzhuo, Kieran Lee and Chris Eagles while United supporters chirped ‘Chin up, Mourinho’ – a reference to his defiant gesture to Chelsea supporters after they conceded the title at Arsenal.
At United, Mourinho has encountered similar strife to Ferguson in a World Cup summer where he has been deprived of starry players in pre-season. At least he didn’t have to play Dong.
A winger agitated to leave in 2006 and another has done likewise under Mourinho, although the difference is if Mourinho had his way Anthony Martial would no longer be a United player. Ferguson, in contrast, flew to Portugal to convince Ronaldo to stay in a masterstroke comparable with his motorbike ride through Paris to assuage Eric Cantona in 1995.
The parallels are so eerie United have signed a midfielder and a back-up goalkeeper, whilst failing to recruit two targets, just as they did in 2006.
Paul Pogba, whose importance is undeniably greater than Van Nistelrooy’s, is dominating the post-Premier League window gossips yet United threatened to begin their competitive campaign as captivatingly as they did back when Shakira and Wyclef Jean were number one.
Back then, United put four past Fulham inside 20 minutes. Under the Friday night lights, they struck sooner through Pogba and threatened to extend their advantage until Leicester got a foothold in a tense encounter.
What made Ferguson’s Mourinho conquests tick was he relied on a settled XI. Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Louis Saha and Rooney started four successive games in a squad low on quantity but high on quality. Ten of them started in 22 or more league matches.
United’s squad was so thin that in a season where Premier League clubs were permitted a maximum of five substitutes Eagles and Craig Cathcart earned bench berths. Twenty-five players appeared in the pre-season squad photo and two – Giuseppe Rossi and the late Liam Miller – soon left on loan and permanently. David Jones and Tom Heaton also posed with Alan Smith, recovering from a broken ankle.
United’s title triumph was all the more remarkable given their spring injuries; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Saha and Ji-Sung Park were simultaneously unavailable.
“I’m only playing with 12 players now, the rest are injured,” said Ferguson after a demoralising draw with Middlesbrough in April.
“It’s an injury crisis of major proportions.” United’s Champions League semi-final bench against AC Milan three days later included Lee, Eagles, Dong and Kieran Richardson.
Mourinho might argue quantity reigns over quality, although the matchday 18 on Friday had a glistening sheen about it despite featuring just two new players. A new defensive axis was introduced, Luke Shaw made fans forget about Alex Sandro (for now) and Andreas Pereira earned an overdue maiden Premier League start.
Glazernomics forced Ferguson to place an emphasis on strengthening from within back in 2006. The scapegoating of Ronaldo by the English media was also the making of him, United were a slicker attacking side with Saha instead of Van Nistelrooy and Rooney’s development continued with an upward curve.
Scholes reinvented himself as a deep-lying midfielder, United formed their greatest defensive axis in Ferdinand and Vidic, Evra was an upgrade at left-back and Giggs enjoyed his best campaign in five years. The aforementioned XI was assembled at a cost of £114.765million.
It is worth recalling what Mourinho said ahead of the summer window. “Our transfer market in the summer will be short,” he stressed in January. Then in April: “We are going again to touch our squad and to believe that more than spend, spend, spend, is probably the evolution of our players.”
Those comments are undermined by his desire for two more additions but Shaw, Pereira, Pogba, Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof, Marcus Rashford and maybe Martial are just six incumbents whose evolution could offset the board’s dubious backing.
Now for Mourinho to return to the position Ferguson ended in.