Why next season’s Champions League could be Jose Mourinho’s undoing at Manchester United

Jose Mourinho

Success in the Europa League means more high-stakes showdowns in 2017/18. Unfortunately, these are the kind of games that will expose Mourinho’s true colours, says Alex Hess

On BT Sport, the mask slipped when the first goal went in. As Paul Pogba’s shot hit a stray shin and looped towards the net, commentator Darren Fletcher’s first response wasn’t to make mention of the Europa League trophy, but to proclaim: “United are closer to Champions League qualification!”

This game’s real importance lay not in its glory but in its functionality

Even after the game, as Jose Mourinho demanded that his players hold up three fingers for the cameras – to indicate, count ’em, all the titles they’ve won this season – an unspoken truth remained. To many, this game’s real importance lay not in its glory but in its functionality.

While it’s silverware that might matter most to Mourinho – and rightly so – it’s the prestige and profile afforded by re-entry to Europe’s premier competition that his board, and many others at the club, will have been basking in as they tucked themselves in last night. Ostensibly, that achievement represents a significant step forward for both: certainly Mourinho sees himself as belonging among the continent’s footballing aristocracy, as do Manchester United as a whole.

Europa League

I'm kissing you, but I'm thinking of another trophy

Just like their fellow giants a few miles down the M62, the significance of Champions League membership as a status symbol shouldn't be underestimated. Being seen as returning to football’s elite is the first step towards actually doing so – and in that sense Mourinho can count ‘stage one’ of his revival mission complete, and his own position consolidated.

But there’s another possibility, too: that competing in the Champions League could serve to harm Mourinho’s reputation, and damage his position as Alex Ferguson’s rightful successor.

Because at some point, the awkward discrepancy between United’s soft-focus mythology and the hard-edged reality of Mourinho’s own vision will likely become more than just background noise. It’s something Mourinho himself seems acutely aware of, too.

Poets and pragmatists

His declaration in Stockholm that “poets do not win titles” was a nice line, but it betrayed the knowledge that he is being assessed on style as well as substance. And if the preceding 90 minutes were anything to go by, then next season’s steep increase in high-profile fixtures will bring with it an equally steep increase in the kind of dreary, plodding and militantly pragmatic football that is Mourinho’s big-game hallmark.

Wednesday's game showed that when the pressure’s on, Mourinho will always favour the sit-and-stifle blueprint

In December, Mourinho spoke of “the dominance, quality and beauty of our football … we are not a team that defends and waits for opponent’s mistake.” But to quote Tina Turner: “I can't believe what you say, because I see what you do.” Wednesday’s game showed that when the pressure’s on, Mourinho will always favour the sit-and-stifle blueprint. So he should; he does it better than anyone.

On Irish television, Graeme Souness delivered his own verdict on the evening’s aesthetics. “It’s agony watching it,” he said. “This is Manchester United and they’re playing lower-end-of-the-Championship football, launching it everywhere.”

If Souness was wrong about the standard of United’s football (as the result demonstrated, long-ball tactics are not the preserve of bad teams), he was a tad more accurate about its effect on the viewer.