Opinion: Jose Mourinho is (somehow) safe from flak at Manchester United... for now
Post-match coverage in the media usually adheres to a straightforward formula: a team is praised if they win and criticised if they lose. Should that defeat be part of a wider trend rather than a one-off occurrence, the man in charge usually finds his position under threat.
Occasionally, though, there's a glitch in the matrix, which is what we encountered in the aftermath of last weekend's Manchester derby. It's one you'd expect Jose Mourinho to take full advantage of as the season progresses.
The hype before the game was relentless; this was not so much Manchester United vs Manchester City as Jose Mourinho vs Pep Guardiola, an early chance to see which of the box-office coaches had better implemented their ideals at respective Premier League giants. Previous clashes between the pair were pored over, the head-to-head records plastered everywhere and think-pieces churned out across various platforms. For one weekend, this rainy north-western metropolis of Manchester was the capital of world football.
City's city on Saturday
City were in the ascendancy with Project Pep already producing the stylist brand of football supporters hoped it would, while United looked very much a work in progress
It was the blue half of the city that was celebrating come the final whistle, Guardiola's men recording a 2-1 victory after a stunning first-half performance. United's backline was exposed by City's intricate interplay, with the situation exacerbated by Mourinho's flawed tactical setup that left his side outnumbered in key areas. The Red Devils did restore some pride in the second period, even if their approach amounted to little more than pumping long balls forward to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marouane Fellaini.
The multitude of questions that were posed in the build-up to the match had been emphatically answered: City were in the ascendancy, with Project Pep already producing the stylistic brand of football supporters hoped it would, while United looked very much a work in progress. It had, at times, been men against boys.
It was strange, then, to see much of the media focus their attention elsewhere – largely on a nervy debut for Claudio Bravo and contentious penalty claim. “Clatt Attack” screamed The Sun, allying themselves with Mourinho’s assertion that Bravo should have been sent off for his challenge on Wayne Rooney. “Bravo suffers miserable debut” tut-tutted The Daily Mail.
Mourinho pinpointed the non-award of that penalty as the key reason his side were defeated, before adding: "It has more credibility if the words come from other people, as I am the manager who lost the game." The press were more than willing to echo his thoughts in the aftermath, and even those who looked beyond the apparent controversy, such as Jonathan Northcroft in the Sunday Times, went for blanket positivity that acclaimed both sides. It had, such voices declared, been an 'epic derby', an 'instant Clasico'.
— Nick Sutton (@suttonnick) September 10, 2016
Rival supporters were no longer lapping up the negativity, while the millions of UK-based Reds had returned to looking on the bright side of life after Mourinho’s appointment and the raft of big-money signings that followed
Those who missed the game could be forgiven for thinking it was a tight affair with little to choose between the teams. Match of the Day's highlights package furthered that idea by whizzing through the action before devoting a lengthy segment to Bravo's three mistakes.
Perhaps, though, this was not an example of pro-United or anti-City bias form the media. For them, there's a bigger picture to consider, and one that very much requries them to look after their own interests.
Three seasons of gleefully reporting on United's post-Fergie slump was a novelty narrative that had begun to serve its purpose. Rival supporters were no longer lapping up the negativity, while the millions of UK-based Reds had returned to looking on the bright side of life after Mourinho’s appointment and the raft of big-money signings that followed. It therefore made commercial sense for newspapers, magazines and television companies to propagate the notion that United are back; once again a force to be reckoned with.
This narrative is even more of a no-brainer with Guardiola’s arrival at the Etihad factored into the equation. The world’s two most high-profile coaches trading blows on the same turf sells papers and brings in viewers, which means it's hardly ideal for the media if one takes a significant stumble in the first round.
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Jose's safety net
It’s why last weekend was described in some quarters as ‘first blood’ to Pep’s Manchester City, an implication that the fight has only just begun. It's also why a titanic title race between the pair will be hyped up as fact until the time comes when such a scenario becomes nonsensical. Simon Mullock, chief football writer at the Sunday Mirror, confirms that this grace period can only be temporary: “This was supposed to be Pep vs Jose, City vs United, but if Guardiola turns it into a one-man race, which I suspect he will, then I think Jose will come under more scrutiny.”
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In the meantime, of course, being painted as a victim plays nicely into Mourinho’s hands, and he'll have taken great encouragement from the manner in which the media collaborated with his post-match excuses. He'll also have noted that their approach contrasts sharply with last season, where every complaint about officials and ill-fortune resulted in mockery. With the title holders Chelsea mired in crisis, employing such tactics only strengthened the story arc that this was a great manager unravelling before our very eyes.
Mourinho's never been a coach who requires – or seeks out – a safety net, yet that's precisely what is being afforded to him at present and will stay in place for as long as the epic battle for Manchester remains a going concern. He should enjoy it while it lasts.