Jose Mourinho has always drawn heavy criticism from those who believe football must be played with beauty in mind, and certainly the dissenting voices have been amplified by the ridiculous success of his great rival across the city. But as the transfer window livens up and Mourinho's key targets become clearer, the unflattering comparisons with Pep Guardiola go much further than a question of aesthetics.
As Guardiola scouts teenage prodigies and stitches his regal ideology into the fabric of the club, Mourinho appears to be doubling down on his own tried-and-tested methods; United chase ageing footballers who fit the clunky, power-based archetype the 55-year-old has always favoured. Marko Arnautovic, Toby Alderweireld, Gareth Bale; these are hardly signings that indicate Mourinho wishes to build a legacy at the club. Instead, he is once again pursuing short-term personal gain, hoarding monolith footballers already in the midst of their prime. For Mourinho, there is only now. The idea of trajectories, of patience, of cultural shifts greater than oneself, means little.
He might well win the Premier League in 2018/19, and if he does Manchester United fans certainly won't care about the process behind their first major success since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement, but nevertheless his lack of legacy building at Old Trafford is poignant. The work of Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, and Jurgen Klopp has reaffirmed the importance of a wide-angle lens now that financial wealth among the elite has reached saturation point. Signing young players, and developing a tactical blueprint that cuts through to the academy, has created an optimism at Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, and Man City that accentuates the sense of staleness in the red half of Manchester.
Should Bale or Arnautovic join the United front line then it'll be more of the same in 2018/19; more juddering through the gears, more constipated football defined by a staccato control and the odd flash of brute-force goalscoring. It is Pogba-ball, the French midfielder's painfully wrought individualism the very essence of what Mourinho's ponderous football looks like these days. Pogba lurches, toils, and ambles across the turf like a man caught in a deeply personal existential crisis, his troubling want of purpose an obvious metaphor for the club as a whole.
Bale and Arnautovic types follow similar grooves, or at least would become similarly caged on a Mourinho chessboard. Even when younger players are pursued, such as Serbia's Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, they are defined by their very unyouthfulness, by that same sense of isolationist heroism.
It looks as though the Premier League – currently enjoying a golden age of progress by English standards - is no longer a fertile environment for Mourinho's tactics or his stubborn resistance to change. But this is beside the point. Even victory in this manner (say, plonking an overpriced, overpaid, over-29 Alderweireld into the team and watching him slowly fade) would leave a mess for his successor. It is no coincidence clubs invariably sink into a period of darkness once Mourinho finishes asset-stripping and slinks away, or that Chelsea – a club built in his image – are caught in a seemingly endless period of transition.
Many United fans were sceptical when Mourinho was appointed. Most sought assurances he would play attacking football, would show a more progressive side of his personality instead of that Machiavellian hunger for short-term, ego-driven gains. Unfortunately, United's pursuit of Arnautovic, Bale, Alderweireld, and Willian confirm that any suggestion of a reformed Mourinho at Old Trafford was hopelessly misguided.