Jose Mourinho has all of the excuses, but none of the answers – and this will all end badly
The more humiliating the situation, the more extravagant the excuse; we’ve all heard that one about the tomato ketchup bottle lodged inside the gentleman who enters the accident and emergency ward. After Manchester United had been humbled in the Manchester derby, Jose Mourinho went on the offensive. Or perhaps just an offensive form of defensiveness.
When asked about Manchester City’s dominance, Mourinho declared that people who analysed using statistics did not understand football. That list would presumably include Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, both of whom are advocates of data analysis.
When questioned on his team’s lack of late onslaught, Mourinho explained that if Marouane Fellaini had been used as a late substitute then City would have been in “big, big trouble”, but did not proffer an explanation for why he failed to start £52m summer signing Fred to make Fellaini a Plan B option.
When pushed for an answer on Manchester United’s lethargy, Mourinho said that City had played two “friendly matches” against Shakhtar Donetsk and Southampton. But matches against such opponents are only friendly if you are good enough to make them simple. United’s last result against Southampton? A 0-0 home draw.
These were not excuses, but exercises in expectation management. Mourinho’s critics might remark that his ability to deflect criticism has become the hallmark of his Manchester United tenure. Can’t compete? It’s the spending. Can’t defend adequately? Blame the defenders. Struggling to find attacking fluidity? Individuals are underperforming.
Mourinho is the dictator who loses faith in those around him until his circle of trust amounts to a circle of one. Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.
There are valid reasons to defend Mourinho and his failure to keep pace with Manchester City, for that was one of the primary reasons for his appointment. The revelations from Football Leaks paint a picture of City as a state-sponsored football club that was prepared to leave no stone unturned in its pursuit of domestic dynasty. Ed Woodward and the Glazer family could run across a pebble beach without turning over a stone, such is their incompetence and negligence respectively.
More than money
But Manchester City’s money (and its source) does not fully explain the widening chasm between these two clubs.
Two managers were appointed by clubs in the same city who had just finished on the same points total. Even if you believe that Guardiola inherited a better squad than Mourinho – and that is surely true – they have performed on different planes since.
Since both managers took charge at the beginning of 2016/17, City have taken 40 more points than United (+9 in that first campaign; +19 last term; +12 and counting so far in 2018/19). Guardiola has done an extraordinary job – and that remains true in spite of the revelations – in creating a team where the component parts perform in such symbiotic harmony.
But forget Football Leaks, Abu Dhabi and Manchester City for a minute. Manchester United have fallen into a rut of mediocrity that would have caused his two much-maligned predecessors great embarrassment. To be behind Manchester City is no disgrace, but to be behind both Bournemouth and Watford having played almost a third of the season is unthinkable for this club.
Since the start of last season, United have collected fewer points than Liverpool and Tottenham. These are deeply unflattering comparisons, and yet still Mourinho pleads his own innocence. Expectation management doesn’t work when the manager of Manchester United is comparing his own side to Everton. A reminder: United have the third-highest wage bill in the world (behind Barcelona and Real Madrid) according to the most recent calculations. He is also responsible for the two most expensive signings ever made by an English club.
More than points, Manchester City have an identity. Before the derby on Sunday, a video played out on the big screens at the Etihad. “We don’t play this way, or that way,” the narrator said, “but our way.” Guardiola was lambasted during his first season in England, but insisted that his team merely needed to become accustomed to his style and demands. He has been fully vindicated since for his stubbornness.
What is the United way under Mourinho? There is little creativity without Paul Pogba (who has had problems of his own). There is no defensive security without David de Gea. There is no attacking fluency when Romelu Lukaku is out of form. We expect Mourinho teams to be hard to beat in big games, but they have conceded three times to Manchester City and Tottenham recently. We expect them to swat aside weaker opposition, but their first home league game of 2018 was the last time they won by three clear goals at Old Trafford (against Huddersfield), March 31 for a two-goal win (against Swansea), and they’ve only won two of their last seven home games in all competitions.
It’s this lack of identity that paints Mourinho in the worst light as he enters his third winter as Manchester United manager. Were they winning ugly against those around them, fine. Were results patchy but the team clearly following an ethos decreed by their manager, fine. But neither is true. They are creating fewer chances than Southampton and Watford, and facing shots more regularly than Leicester and Wolves. United are a bluebottle, buzzing, bumbling and bumping their way in search of an open window.
There is a valid argument that United are better off having Mourinho than not, given the incompetence of those above him and the presumed lack of succession plan should he leave. But that is not the same as Mourinho earning faith or being the best man for the job, and at best should be viewed as damnation through faint praise.
Those who see an easy choice between backing the manager and backing the Glazer family should beware of miscasting Mourinho as the trustee of their support. He is in this for himself, not them.
The not-so-great beyond
The great flaw of the cult of Mourinho is what happens when things go south. His house of cards is reinforced by his own imperviousness to criticism, and his response is typically to lash out at those around him. That creates the toxic atmosphere that he was unable to address at Real Madrid and Chelsea. Turning around this Manchester United season would represent something new in his career.
Right now, that seems unlikely. More predictable is that United continue to bumble along, their manager basks in victory and deflects the blame in defeat, and an extended exit strategy eventually comes to a head next summer or midway through next season.
Mourinho will do his utmost to leave Manchester with his head held high, but even that will be a push. For all the elaborate defences and myriad what-ifs, one thing is undeniable: this isn’t working out like anyone at Old Trafford hoped.