Opinion: Pragmatism pays for serial winner Jose Mourinho

With two major trophies in his maiden season at Manchester United, Mourinho has laid the foundation for another title challenge

BY Cian Roche 15:00 Saturday 27 May 2017, 15:00 27 May 2017

Jose Mourinho

Job done. After one of his most challenging seasons in football management, Jose Mourinho closed the book on his first year as Manchester United boss in celebration.

An emotionally charged night in Stockholm on Wednesday saw United claim the Europa League - the last major trophy that had eluded them. That alone was a small piece of history for Mourinho.

But there was a more lucrative carrot on offer. Victory in the Europa League final over a promising young Ajax side saw United clinch a place in next season's Champions League.

Qualification to the competition looked beyond Mourinho's side as the battle for a top four spot intensified. With this in mind, Mourinho simply switched the focus.

After already bemoaning the fixture schedule which included successful runs in the League Cup and a semi-final exit in the FA Cup, the Portuguese boss discarded the Premier League. It was no longer a priority. 

Just three days after securing their spot in the Europa League final, United faced the trip to Tottenham. The fight for the top four was still alive at this point, but Mourinho's focus was no longer on United's domestic campaign.

Mourinho described their 3-1 defeat at White Hart Lane as "important" for preparing his players for their final games of the season.

"The players who needed the rest got the rest," he said. "And we played in a positive way, especially in the second half when we brought a little more quality into the team."

What should have been viewed as another disappointing post-Ferguson era finish in the Premier League was negated by Mourinho's views on how the club chases success.

"I don't know other clubs, the way they think or what is important for them. For us, it's more important to win titles than to finish [in the] top four.

"Other clubs fighting for the top four would like to be in our position."

Manchester United's Europa League victory on Wednesday night was crucial to Jose Mourinho's season. Image: NurPhoto / SIPA USA/PA Images

Mourinho's greatest strength this season was controlling how the campaign was viewed. He says that three trophies in one campaign - Charity Shield included - can't be considered a bad season. Furthermore, by winning more titles he reinforced his image as a serial winner.

This was achieved through sheer pragmatism. United's recruitment over the summer on paper appears good business, but their performances for large parts of the season were uninspiring.

A series of 1-1 draws, or games in which United ceded leads, exposed the side's lack of killer instinct or cutting edge in front of goal. The over-reliance on an aging Zlatan Ibrahimovic - who scored 17 of their 54 league goals - will have brought into focus their need for a world class striker. The Swede's future with United is far from certain and while he recoveries from a serious knee injury, he will no doubt be weighing up any offers from abroad.

Defensively, Mourinho found some joy in the blossoming Marcus Rojo, but was forced to juggle his back four due to injuries in his squad. 

In the centre of the pitch, Paul Pogba really began to hit his stride in the latter stages of the season, while Ander Herrera has had his best year in a United shirt.

After the win on Wednesday night, his message was simple.

"In a bad season, in a season where sometimes I felt my team was the worst team in the world, where I felt I was the worst manager in the world, we managed to win three trophies and we go to the Champions League by winning a trophy, not finishing third or fourth," he said.

"We have the honour of going to the European Super Cup to play the Champions League winner."

He added: "It was a really good victory, victory of pragmatism, victory of humble people, who respect opponents, try to explore opponents' weaknesses. A win for a fantastic group, but a win for pragmatism."

Jose Mourinho (left) and Paul Pogba celebrate winning the EFL Cup win over Southampton in February. Image: Mike Egerton / EMPICS Sport

A victory for pragmatism. No sixth placed finish in the Premier League could dampen that. Yes, United will need to strengthen over the summer months to keep up with the revamp at Manchester City and the record-setting Chelsea this season.

Yes, many of their league games this season - particularly at home - have been disappointing. Of their 38 games this season, Mourinho went 33 of those unbeaten. Of course, no run of draws will hide their shortcomings.

But above all, even with all their difficulties, Mourinho still emerged a winner. He had the last laugh. Champions League football guaranteed. A first Europa League trophy in United's history in the bag. Another League Cup added to the club's collection.

He now goes off on his holidays and Ed Woodward will work busily over the summer to try to secure a list of transfer targets.

While it was another disappointing season in the league for United, Mourinho's pragmatic approach preserves his - and United's - image of remaining serial winners.

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