“We want more. My contract is long, so hopefully I can win something more.”
These words sound a lot like something Erik ten Hag could have said in the aftermath of Manchester United‘s Carabao Cup final victory against Newcastle on Sunday, but they belong to Jose Mourinho, who had been sat in the same seat in the Wembley news conference exactly six years earlier.
Like Ten Hag, Mourinho lifted the League Cup in his first season as manager at Old Trafford and then spoke about wanting more. There was more to come from Mourinho in the elongated vase of the UEFA Europa League three months later, but a little over a year after that, Mourinho was gone, sacked in December 2018 following a series of disagreements with the board over transfers and a run of miserable results.
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The 2017 League Cup, secured with a 3-2 win over Southampton, wasn’t the platform it was supposed to be, and it has since been consigned to history as a rare good day during the post-Sir Alex Ferguson slump. Ferguson used the cup competitions — particularly success in the FA Cup in 1990 and the League Cup in 2006 — to trigger periods of sustained success. The question for Ten Hag is simple: how will his 2023 League Cup triumph be remembered?
It’s easy with the benefit of hindsight but there were signs, even during the celebrations at Wembley in 2017, that all was not well with Mourinho at United. In fact, the second question in his winners’ news conference suggested as much.
“Jose,” it started, “for someone who has just won a trophy, you don’t seem hugely exuberant or happy.”
“I am very happy,” came Mourinho’s reply, delivered while wearing the face of a man who was anything but. “I am very happy. It’s important for the fans and for the players. I always try to put myself in a secondary position, but the reality is that it’s also important for me. It’s a relief.”
The difference in Ten Hag’s demeanour on Sunday could not have been more different. After dancing on the pitch with Antony and Lisandro Martinez, he sat down for his news conference wearing a wide grin. He said broadly similar things to what Mourinho had said six years before — “If we keep going and working then we can win even more” — but he was in a buoyant-enough mood to make a joke, as he left having nearly forgotten to take the trophy with him.
Ten Hag has cracked down on squad discipline since taking over last summer, but he has also ensured he has built a bond with his players and the fans, something it seemed Mourinho always struggled to do.
In line with Carabao Cup rules, clubs do not have to hold prematch news conferences for any round prior to the semifinals and for the first time this season, United used the time to invite supporters to come to the training base at Carrington and put their own questions to Ten Hag. Fans from all over the world took up the opportunity and each time, it went down well.
Mourinho might have understood his task at Old Trafford, but Ten Hag, it seems, understands the club.
After winning the League Cup and the Europa League in his first season, Mourinho finished second in the Premier League in his second year and lost in the FA Cup final to Chelsea. It was at that point, however, that his reign began to unravel. He had already lost patience with star player Paul Pogba and during the summer of 2018, he became increasingly frustrated by the club’s transfer business.
Having decided he wanted to move on Anthony Martial, Mourinho was convinced the idea was blocked because the French forward was club co-chairman Joel Glazer’s favourite player. Mourinho also asked to sign a new centre-back, but was told that targets Harry Maguire and Jerome Boateng were too expensive and too old and injury-prone, respectively. Transfers can be contentious for any manager and Ten Hag will have to be careful in the way he navigates the summer window so as not to fall into the same trap as Mourinho.
Ten Hag almost forgets to collect the Carabao Cup trophy
Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag is reminded by reporters to bring the Carabao Cup with him at the end of his press conference.
After making such a huge step forward in his first season, there will be an expectation for United to make a genuine title challenge and the Dutchman will quite rightly want a squad capable of delivering. Ten Hag has not been shy in pushing for more players — winger Antony last summer, forward Wout Weghorst and midfielder Marcel Sabitzer in January — and will do so again, but as Mourinho learned to his cost, there can be danger when you overstep the mark.
Because of financial fair play concerns, United are planning a summer spend of between £100m and £200m, and it will be football director John Murtough’s job to balance Ten Hag’s demands with the club’s financial constraints. A new striker, in particular, is vital if United are going to reach the next level.
Mourinho thought the League Cup would provide a first taste of success for a team destined for bigger and better things and the fans at Wembley that day probably thought the same. That it didn’t provides an apt reminder for Ten Hag — not that he needs one — that there’s work to do to complete his Old Trafford revolution and get United back to the top table in both England and Europe.
Mourinho’s League Cup turned out to be nothing more than a brief highlight. Ten Hag wants his to be the start of a series of them.