"Be careful," Mourinho said to reporters and photographers through the open window of a car that whisked him away from the city-center hotel where he lived throughout his time at United. Indeed, these are worrying times for both United, which is arguably at its lowest point since the departure of long-time manager Alex Ferguson in 2013, and Mourinho, whose illustrious coaching career is at a crossroads as critics question if his abrasive approach, on and off the field, still suits modern-day soccer.
United said it will not hire a permanent replacement for Mourinho until the offseason. The club will soon appoint a caretaker manager for the remainder of the season and a page on United's website suggested it will be former striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Under a video of Solskjaer celebrating after scoring the winning goal for United in the 1999 Champions League final, a post read : "Solskjaer becomes our interim manager, 20 seasons after clinching the Treble with THAT goal at Camp Nou..."
No official announcement has been made, however. The end for Mourinho at English soccer's most prestigious club came two days after a 3-1 loss at fierce rival Liverpool, the latest reminder of just how far United has slumped behind the top teams in the Premier League and Europe.
It was a result that left United sixth in the Premier League, 19 points off the lead after 17 games and, perhaps more significantly, 11 points off the top four in the race to secure Champions League qualification for next season. It is United's worst 17-game start to a league campaign since the 1990-91 season.
"The club would like to thank Jose for his work during his time at Manchester United and to wish him success in the future," United said in a three-line statement released after Mourinho was told of his fate in a face-to-face meeting with executive vice chairman Ed Woodward.
United won two titles in Mourinho's first season — the English League Cup and the Europa League — but failed to capture a trophy in his second season, although runner-up spot in the league was its highest finish since Ferguson left.
Mourinho has historically encountered problems in his third season in charge at clubs he has managed, and it was no different at United. His relationship with Paul Pogba, United's record signing at $116 million and the marquee arrival in Mourinho's reign, appeared broken following a spat that started in the offseason.
Pogba, who hasn't started for United in its last three games, wrote on Instagram "Caption this!" alongside a picture of him smirking in a post published soon after the announcement of Mourinho's departure. It was quickly deleted.
Mourinho has also publicly criticized other players, including Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial, during his reign. By the end, it felt as if Mourinho was unloved and increasingly alienated. Tellingly, the only public message from a United player in the hours following Mourinho's departure was that post by Pogba.
Mourinho, who oversaw the outlay of $470 million on players while at United, also appeared to have a fractious relationship with Woodward especially since the club's board failed to back his wish to sign a central defender in the offseason. United has already conceded more goals in the league (29) than it did in all of last season.
Then there was United's pragmatic and often-ponderous style of play under Mourinho that always seemed at odds with the team's preference down the years for free-flowing, attacking play. Mourinho's approach and tactics appear out of date and have been bypassed by younger, more forward-thinking managers.
After Sunday's loss at Anfield, Mourinho said his players were brittle and couldn't cope with the intensity and physicality of Liverpool — historically United's biggest rival. United also lost 3-1 to neighbor Manchester City in the league in recent weeks in another display that highlighted the team's demise.
A serial winner of trophies throughout his coaching career — his title haul currently stands at 25 — Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford in 2016 as a supposed quick fix for United following its struggles after the retirement of Ferguson three years earlier. David Moyes, Ferguson's hand-picked successor, and Louis van Gaal departed after 10 months and two years, respectively.
Mourinho lasted only marginally longer. He was at United the same length of time as he was in his previous job at Chelsea, when he was also fired just before Christmas in 2015 in his third season after accusing his players of "betraying" him.
In his six major coaching stints — at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Chelsea again and United — Mourinho has only lasted more than three years once. That was in his first spell at Chelsea. Having signed a new contract with United in January until June 2020, the Portuguese coach will reportedly receive compensation of 24 million pounds ($30 million).
Whoever replaces Mourinho — former United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been linked with the caretaker position — will take over a team that reached the last 16 of the Champions League, where it will play Paris Saint-Germain over two legs in February and March. The interim coach's priority will be to claw back that massive deficit to the top four and try to qualify for the Champions League — the minimum requirement for big teams like United at the start of every season.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino is among the favorites with British bookmakers to take over on a full-time basis. "We know a lot of rumors happen," Pochettino said Tuesday. "But it's not my business what happens in another club now. I'm so focused on delivering my best job, our best job, in this club."
In some of Mourinho's final public comments as United manager, he said "for sure we are going to finish in the top six ... but the better we can get is fourth position." It smacked of a lowering in standards that he used to criticize other managers of having.
By the end, the old magic that marked Mourinho out as one of the greatest coaches of his generation had gone.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80