Inter Milan winning the European cup against Bayern Munich as part of their treble was one of the most impressive feats in modern football. Even more impressive than turning over a stunning Barca side in the previous round.
It was a virtuosic management stroke from Mourinho because Inter were so much the underdogs. There was no way that side could compete on equal terms. So he relinquished possession, parked the bus and killed the game. And it was fantastic. He’d already flooded Porto and Chelsea sides with game killers and won against the odds too.
But Manchester United are a different kettle of fish. There are teams you simply expect more from. You could never imagine Barcelona, Bayern, Juventus or even Ajax parking the bus. For these sides, the character of your win matters even more than the trophy. Building a dominant side, playing top level football and out classing your opponent is how to be a top level side. Manchester United have always belonged to this elite group.
Now they don’t.
United might very well somehow take the league title this year. The win against spurs confirms they can finally take down the top sides in the league. But do United fans care how they win? Does the club history, the legacy matter to them as much as it does Bayern and Barca fans? I would say yes. United park the bus and try and hit sides like Liverpool by holding back and trying to pinch counter attack goals.
Bobby Charlton famously said Mourinho wasn’t a United type of manager. Who understands the legacy better than he does? United celebrated winning the Europa Cup last season like they were Newcastle. They cheered sixth place like they were Everton. In the short space of time since Ferguson left, have the ambition and standards of the club really just vanished like this?
If United win in Europe this season they’ll do it playing the kind of football Inter did. Underdog football. They’ll be admitting their status as a fully fledged second tier European team. It’s called ‘winning ugly’ a term invented by tennis coach Brad Gilbert and it’s what you do when you’re down on resources. It’s how he trained Agassi to beat the more gifted Sampras. But it’s also the difference between Agassi and Sampras, and Federer. It’s the difference between Prost and Senna. It’s the difference between Foreman and Ali.
It’s the difference between how the game should be played by dominant champions and how weaker wannabes try to even the odds.
We know Guardiola was United’s first choice manager for this very reason. He’s right now building a fast, attacking, dominant side working toward out playing the best in Europe. There are other coaches with similar vision and ethic.
So the question remains, do United fans care how they win or just if they win.