Will Jose Mourinho return Manchester United to their former glory?
Now this looks like a job for me
So everybody just follow me
'Cause we need a little controversy
'Cause it feels so empty without me.
-- Eminem ("Without Me")
Guess who's back.
Jose Mourinho's return to the Premier League as manager of Manchester United, some six months after being shown the door by Chelsea, was in the cards for months. Indeed, some day, we'll probably find out why it took so long to make the change when the "Special One" was pretty much openly peddling himself to Old Trafford as early as January.
United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward and the club-owning Glazer family must have had their reasons. And maybe one of them really was that they continued to hold the belief that United might be better off with another 18 months of Louis van Gaal.
Whatever the case, United have got themselves an upgrade from many different vantage points. Mourinho is -- to borrow a term from Real Madrid president Florentino Perez -- "mediatic." The manager brings eyeballs and attention wherever he goes. ("Under your skin like a splinter, the center of attention back for the winter." -- yes, more Eminem)
That matters because, whether we like it or not, the Glazers are running a sports entertainment business. While the club and the owners' profits continue to grow commercially, it's not something they can take for granted. Commercial deals are lagging indicators, based on what came before, that they are still dining out on the Sir Alex Ferguson years and that, over time, diminishing returns will be offered.
It's not so much about United supporters; it takes a lot for them to lose interest and jump off the bandwagon. It's more about those on the fringes: the folks described by the club as "followers" when it branded itself "World's most popular FC" four years ago and came to the conclusion there were 659 million such people worldwide.
Their existence is what allows Woodward to secure the many lucrative sponsorship deals the club keeps talking about. Every team has them, but United have far more than most, mainly because they are a bigger brand than most.
After three seasons of post-Ferguson underachievement, more of the same might have jeopardized some of those deals. Football is cyclical and so is popularity, especially today, when the bulk of a club's support know them only as a televised product or an option while playing FIFA.
Mourinho reverses all that. Before United kick a ball in anger next season, they will be the story, bigger than Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Not because Mourinho and United are somehow better than Guardiola and City, but because they are simply bigger.
Obviously, results will have to follow, and this is where it gets interesting. The last time United went three straight seasons without a top-three finish was 25 years ago, but Mourinho has been dropped straight into a rebuilding job the likes of which he has never faced before.
It's true that Porto were fifth when he took charge there in the middle of the 2001-02 season, but they had finished second in each of the previous two years and, in any case, they weren't facing the depth of competition he'll have in the Premier League.
At Chelsea in 2004, he inherited a team that had finished second and reached a Champions League semifinal the year before. Four years later, Inter were coming off three consecutive Serie A titles.
In 2010, Real Madrid were two years removed from a title and had finished second the previous year with 96 points, the club's then highest-ever total.
On his return to Stamford Bridge, Mourinho took over a side that had finished third the previous year and, in the preceding two campaigns, had won the Europa League and Champions League.
In other words, his brief was to tweak, rather than overhaul. At each stop, many of the pieces were already in place. There already was, to varying degrees, a culture of winning. This is an entirely different situation.
Note that this does not mean he won't be able to do it. It's just that this is not something he has been asked to do before. And while the resources are there -- from the young talent that has emerged this season to enormous transfer funds -- it will be an entirely new process.
It will also be extremely important for the club to get matters right in terms of how they recruit. The past two campaigns have seen Woodward in charge, with a heavy reliance on "trusted intermediaries." Among them is Jorge Mendes, who happens to be Mourinho's agent. Van Gaal obviously had input, particularly in terms of the profile of players signed, but much of the onus fell on Woodward.
The results are there for all to see, and even when the deals worked out on the pitch -- as with Anthony Martial -- you still had to have serious reservations over how they were conducted.
A month before Woodward negotiated the French striker's move to Old Trafford for €50 million ($56m), with bonuses of up to an additional €30m ($33.6m), the Monaco forward was being linked with a move to Aston Villa for €10m ($11.2m).
Deals like that -- and letting David De Gea's contract run down to the point that he almost moved to Real Madrid for far less than market value -- are simply examples of poor transfer stewardship. It's not lost on anyone that Mendes was involved in both deals, and his role, now that Mourinho is at the helm and United still do not have a director of football, will come under the spotlight.
You don't have to have a degree in good corporate governance to realize that Mendes is a walking, talking conflict of interest. His job is to do what's best for his clients, but when some are players and some are managers and they're at rival clubs, it's a very fine line.
When Mourinho returned to Chelsea, the club dealt with it by having a clear division of responsibilities. Michael Emenalo and Marina Granovskaia were in charge of transfer activity, while Mourinho had an advisory role and Mendes was there to represent his clients and nothing more.
What happens next at Old Trafford will play a major role in determining whether Mourinho gets the players he wants. Give him too much power over transfers and Mendes becomes United's de facto director of football. Set limits and -- if Woodward remains solely responsible for buying and selling -- there might be missed targets, panic buying and overspending, at least based on his track record. That would end up angering Mourinho, and an angry Mourinho is never a good thing.
Some have expressed reservations over Mourinho's style of play, but those are rather overblown. Results are the ultimate cure-all anyway, and he tends to deliver those. Besides, while he may not be an aesthete's dream, he has shown the ability to play the kind of pacy, back-to-front attacking football that Old Trafford supposedly craves.
He did it at times in his two stints at Chelsea, he did it at Real Madrid, he did it with Inter and he did it at Porto. Does he get uber-pragmatic at times in big games, particularly two-legged Champions League ties? Of course he does, particularly against more gifted opponents. But then so do most good managers.
Another big concern is Mourinho's attitude regarding young talent. To some, giving playing time to homegrown talent is seen as critically important and managers who do it are praised. And, as the narrative goes, Mourinho is reluctant to do that.
As I see it, this is an entirely manufactured narrative: Managers do what they are asked to do by the club and what they can do based on the resources. If the kids are talented and the club encourages the manager to play them, possibly at the expense of immediate results, they'll get on the pitch. (Injuries can also offer opportunity, as was the case with United this season.)
Mourinho's camp took this accusation so seriously that they got one of his friends to speak up on his behalf, while privately rattling off the names of kids to whom he gave a debut.
However, while you could compile a list of young players Mourinho has fielded -- from Jese to Nacho to Mario Balotelli to Davide Santon to Nathan Ake to Carlos Alberto -- you could also ask a very simple question: Can you name the youngsters Mourinho ignored who went on to become superstars?
We have enough data on this -- he's been managing since 2001-02 -- and, in fact, it's a very, very short list. So that ought to alleviate some of the fears as far as Marcus Rashford and other United youth team products are concerned.
What's more, United's current U18s are seen as the last good crop of young players, which is why the club have made radical changes, going some seven months without an academy head last year after the departure of Brian McClair. The revamp may or may not yield results, but odds are, if there is improvement, it won't filter through to the first team for a while.
The challenge now for Mourinho is to evaluate the current talent and figure out what to do. There are tons of questions to be answered.
Is Rashford ready to be the full-time striker?
Will De Gea, another Mendes client, stick around?
Can Wayne Rooney really be effective in deep midfield against teams other than a Crystal Palace side who camp out on the edge of their own box?
What will Luke Shaw be like when he returns from injury, and can he stay fit?
Will Mourinho appreciate Juan Mata more than he did at Chelsea?
Which of last season's transfer duds will get a second chance?
And where to spend that enormous transfer kitty which, it's safe to assume, the club guaranteed would be available?
We have all summer and beyond to figure this out. Mourinho is dying to get back to work, and the good news is that United definitely received an instant boost with his appointment, in terms of media attention and, almost certainly, actual managerial ability.
The question marks surround how the mechanics and personal relationships are going to work inside Old Trafford and whether Mourinho will be given the right amount of latitude -- not too much, not too little -- to do his job in the best possible way. After all, that was his undoing twice at Chelsea and also at Real Madrid.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.