It is a slightly mystifying claim given the widespread perception at the time that City were aging while United had a scattering of extremely exciting emerging young talent. But what has given that notion legs has been the shambolic nature of United’s spending. And that has added edge to the unease between Mourinho and Paul Pogba.
City have made mistakes with their spending. Nolito did not work out. Danilo has struggled. Claudio Bravo was awful. But, for the most part, their signings have thrived. It is true that roughly €400 million ($491 million) has been spent net, but City have got full value for that spending. Most of those they have brought in have been young and upcoming, not unknowns by any means, but players still climbing toward a peak.
That cannot be said of United since Sir Alex Ferguson left, with new parts constantly being bolted on with very little sign of advance thought of cohesive planning. And most troubling is that the two most expensive signings, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba, have both to some extent failed.
Lukaku has scored 22 goals for United in all competitions but none of those have come against other members of the big six. He did score against Real Madrid in the European Super Cup, but nothing he has yet done at Old Trafford has done anything to allay the fears that he is not quite at the elite level to make a difference in big games. What was striking at Sevilla on Wednesday as that Alex Sanchez cross came to him in the first half was how, even though the ball was on his preferred foot, it never seemed plausible that he might score.
Pogba, meanwhile, has managed eight goals and 13 assists in 45 Premier League starts since joining in the summer of 2016 which, on the face of it, sounds good. But the problem is the disruption he causes. In the 4-2-3-1 Mourinho seems these days to favor, Pogba is neither disciplined enough to play in one of the deeper positions — a point Mourinho made forcibly to him on the touchline in the defeats against both Tottenham and Newcastle — nor technically good enough with his back to goal to play behind a striker.
He is a rampaging, surging presence, a player to thrill the heart when he takes hold of a game, but an anachronism in the modern game as a box-to-box player in an era that has essentially separated midfield into two distinct bands.
Perhaps the most troubling evidence of his misfit status came at Arsenal when his red card paradoxically seemed to make United more secure in their lead as they could retreat into their bunker without anybody leading heroic charges at the opposition.
In that sense, the player he is most reminiscent of is Steven Gerrard, whom Rafa Benitez ended up playing wide or as the most creative of three central midfielders at Liverpool. Mourinho’s switch to a 4-3-3 in Seville, but with Pogba on the bench, seemed a point being calculatedly made. Yet when Pogba did come on, after Ander Herrera had suffered a hamstring injury after 16 minutes, his impact was minimal — as it had been on the left of a 4-3-3 at Basel in the group stage.
Mourinho’s frustration with Pogba is understandable, but his decision to take him on is intriguing. When he described Scott McTominay earlier this week as having “a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches ... ” it was pretty obvious whom he was really talking about.
With his extended contract now signed, Mourinho presumably feels emboldened, able to take radical action to try to shape the squad as he wants. But we have seen this political game-playing before, most notably at Real Madrid when he ousted the sporting director Jorge Valdano and then ostracized the goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas.
Then it was the beginning of the end for Mourinho at the club. With Chelsea visiting Old Trafford today these are dangerous games he is playing.