The good news for Manchester United fans this week is that while their team lost 3-0 on Monday night, their manager is still winning 3-2. Respect.
Whether they will take any true consolation from him reminding them of three Chelsea Premier League titles, all won at their expense, is questionable. It’s a bit like your wife ending an argument by telling everyone about the good times she enjoyed in a previous relationship.
Jose Mourinho marriages don’t last long. None of his previous unions have gone beyond three years. Even by football’s lack of standards, his results have done nothing to merit divorce but there are now some grounds for unreasonable behaviour. His latest walk-out has raised suspicions that the wheels of his next exit strategy may already be in motion. Perhaps the best way to beat the traffic back to the suitcase in his Manchester hotel room is to leave early.
It is easy to deride and pick holes in the content of Mourinho’s defiant history lecture to the assembled media after the Tottenham defeat but that would be missing the point. It was a performance. Pre-rehearsed. It was done for effect. Never meant to be believed. The question is who the performance was for.
If the United manager is a mind games master, he has subtly diverted all attention and pressure away from his beaten players and (again) selflessly thrust himself into the firing line until the dust settles. The alternative scenario is that this outburst was just another leakage from a self-centred heart and a wounded ego, and that Mourinho views Old Trafford as no more than a staging post on his own blinkered career path.
One is the act of a man deserving of respect and patience. The second is not. So, which is it?
The United team he selected against Spurs is unlikely to take the field ever again… not in whatever formation that was intended to be. It was tailored to the circumstances. A Mourinho trademark. The bespoke creation of an arch strategist looking no further than winning the next three points.
A generation of philosophy coaches is gathering around him. Guardiola, Klopp, Emery, Sarri, Pochettino. Each has arrived with a distinctive modus operandi. For better or worse, they are imposing their preferred style of play indelibly on their teams. Three games into his third season at Old Trafford, it is not easy to see what kind of style or team Mourinho is building.
His ‘philosophy’ is more about winning than building. The case he boldly makes for his own defence is that it’s about time Klopp and Pochettino started winning. With two major trophies and a second placed finish on his United record already, he has a point.
The argument that he somehow doesn’t understand the DNA of the club is outdated. Ryan Giggs has left the building. Success is what the Stretford End craves. Homegrown wizards on the wings are now optional. There will be no protest banners flying from planes if the title winning goal happens to be a crashing far-post header from Marouane Fellaini. He is smart enough to know that the loyalty of fans to their club runs far deeper than the next noisy phone-in. There is as much chance of this team ‘losing’ the supporters as Trump losing Wyoming. They are a decent squad with a proven manager and they are still contenders.
The question here is how did Mourinho’s latest hissy fit enhance their chances of contending? Or did it harm them? A champion knows when to pick his fights. Presumably the intention of his thinly-veiled summer criticism of the club’s close season recruitment drive was to force the owners’ cheque-signing hand, so why didn’t it work?
It’s not clear exactly how the transfer policy operates at Old Trafford but the image is of the manager handing Ed Woodward a wish-list, rather like a child presenting Father Christmas with a neatly-written note as he is hoisted onto Santa’s knee at the local shopping mall.
“Ho, ho, ho. So, let’s have a look, young man. Ah, Maguire, Mina, Alderweireld, Varane, Godin. You want a centre-back, don’t you?”
“Yes, Santa… er, Ed, sorry!”
“You’ve got all kinds here. Young, old, strong, skilful. What type do you really want, Jose? A quick one, an experienced one, maybe a left-footed one? What kind of centre-back?”
“Er, one that’s better than the two I’ve bought already, please.”
Only good boys get the presents they want. At his best, Mourinho has always been naughty for a good reason but once he starts to steer a collision course his eyes can become fixed on the vanity mirror and can’t see beyond the next public appearance.
One of the benefits of having a wider philosophy, a style, a vision or at very least a glimpse of a developing plan is that it is easier for the deal makers and financers to buy in and see where their expensive pieces are going to fit. United’s most expensive piece is still looking for a Pogba-shaped hole in the team after two years. His agent may already be looking for one elsewhere.
Mourinho didn’t kick a ball in any of those Chelsea trophy seasons but his approach to managing is so public, so personal, so ‘here and now’ that he is entitled to take huge credit for the regular triumphs that have decorated his career. With that entitlement comes an equally skewed responsibility for the defeats and failures, though. You can’t live by results without risking death by the same weapon. Just as he needs his pompous self-confidence to bullet proof him against doubt, so he requires continuing success to justify his means and moods.
Three years ago, Mourinho signed a new contract at Chelsea with the air of a man putting down roots. We should have known better. The United job came free at a good time for both parties. It wasn’t a perfect fit but it served all immediate interests and there has been a level of continued success. The conduct unbecoming is only an issue if the wins stop and the stand offs begin.
The gathering evidence is that Jose Mourinho’s own restless interests hold the key to what happens next. He has nowhere obvious to go, he has burnt more bridges than the Dambusters. Woodward doesn’t want to twist again but the close-up camera is pursuing him with as much sharp focus as his manager. If the club is to harness the power of the support that Mourinho so laboriously praised on Monday, they need a united front. Nobody bigger than the club. That motto may not correspond to the manager’s view of his position.
Football is a team game and there is no ‘I’ in team. There is a big dotted one in the middle of ‘Mourinho’, and at the heart of the man.
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