The Inevitable Jose Mourinho Thinkpiece
In the immediate afterglow of a particularly tumultuous match, our critical faculties aren’t necessarily as sharp as they might otherwise be. We get swayed by the result, emotionally pulled back and forth by the contradictions between the overall sense we took from the match itself, its main incidents, and its final result. It requires the dust to settle for the truth behind some football matches to fully reveal itself. When Liverpool played Manchester United on Sunday afternoon the match itself finally found a way to shine through the fog of inevitable hype, but there was something slightly unusual about it.
Sure enough, Liverpool pelted the Manchester United goal with so many shots that the three goals they did score still represents a less than one in ten hit rate, when compared to the number of chances they created. And the comprehensive nature of the final score seemed to draw a defining line in the sand for this season. This year’s title race, it now seems, will be between Manchester City and Liverpool. Manchester United will not be finishing above Liverpool in the Premier League, and will be unlikely now to make a Champions League spot for next season. And Jose Mourinho’s days at Old Trafford are now over, with the final chapter of his period in charge of the club being a defeat which has served as a barometer for the wellness of both Liverpool and Manchester United at that precise moment in time.
The margins between victory and defeat, however, remain wafer thin. The final scoreline recording a three-one victory for the home side is unlikely to recall the fact that, by the time Liverpool did nudge their way back into the lead with seventeen minutes to play, they were starting to look a little directionless and it was starting to feel as though the match may have been set to fizzle out into a tame draw, just as the corresponding fixture did in October 2017. Similarly, it will be largely forgotten that both of the two late goals scored by Xherdan Shaqiri required deflections to win the match for Liverpool. None of this is meant to diminish the achievement of the home side on Sunday afternoon. Liverpool completely warranted the win, of that there is little question. This, however, doesn’t diminish the fact that in professional sport winning margins are usually tight, even when we think they might not be.
This week, of course, marks the third anniversary of Jose Mourinho’s departure from Stamford Bridge. The collapse of Chelsea during his third season in charge of the team was arguably more spectacular than Manchester United’s has been this season – they were in the bottom half of the Premier League at the time having won the league at a canter at the end of the previous season – and Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day for the first home match following his departure was a most curious atmosphere, a mixture of tribute to what he had achieved there and that strange kind of relief at something having happened which most people agreed kind of needed to happen,even if they didn’t really wanted it to. Their opponents that day were Watford, who effervescently grabbed a two-all draw from the match. Chelsea recovered a little over the course of the second half of that season, but only to tenth place in the table.
Manchester United have not flamed out with the same intensity that Chelsea did three years ago, of course. But that’s at least in part a matter of perception. When Jose Mourinho left Stamford Bridge at the end of 2015, his departure was a cauterisation. His dismissal was framed very clearly as the removal of an individual whose presence was starting to have a malign influence upon the club as an entity. It caused a degree of division – there were certainly some who accepted his shovelling of blame onto the shoulders of players such as Cesc Fabregas, for example – but ultimately there was little feeling that Chelsea was stagnating as an institution at that time. They had, after all, won the Premier League at the end of the previous season and would go on to do so again at the end of the 2016/17 season. Mourinho’s demeanour and his public savaging of senior players was very much regarded as a cause of the difficulties that the club was having on the pitch at the time.
At Manchester United, however, Jose Mourinho was as much a symptom of malaise as he was a cause of it. On the one hand, much of what we’ve witnessed over the last few months has been extremely familiar – for Cesc Fabregas read Paul Pogba, for example – but the decline of this club began several years before his arrival, and his staunchest defenders might even point to winning the League Cup and the Europa League as signs that he’s been within touching distance of the team that he wants to build. There is a sense, however, that at Manchester United Jose Mourinho was a piece in a bigger jigsaw puzzle, and that the entirety of this puzzle has not been displaying a particularly attractive picture for quite some time, now. To put it another way, there is an extent to which Jose Mourinho at Manchester United can only be viewed through the broader prism of the continuing malign presence of the Glazer family at Old Trafford.
None of this is to let Mourinho off the hook in any way, though. The manner in which he talked about his players was reprehensible by any standards, whilst his capacity to throw them under the bus that he has parked in front of goal on account of his own near-debilitating fear of losing was unbefitting of anybody in any managerial job of any description. As the clubs around Manchester United built a playing identity entirely of their own – and, at both Arsenal and Chelsea, within only a few months of appointing a new manager – Mourinho’s team lumbered, increasingly looking anachronistic in an age of both increasingly fast, fluid and sophisticated football and the apparent dawning of the realisation within the game that, considering the weight of the burden of expectation that sits on every player’s shoulders, man-management matters more than it ever has before. In an era during which all players are exceptional athletes, their mental state matters more than ever. Even if we discount the moral aspect of talking about players in the way that Mourinho talked about his, there’s been little evidence over the course of the first half of this season that his approach even had practical value.
And the matter of failure by comparison is important. Manchester City might be richer than Croesus, but they have built a formidable team off the back of their petrol-infused largesse. Liverpool have spent money and have not won any silverware since Jürgen Klopp’s arrival at Anfield, but they reached the Champions League final last season and are involved in a two-horse race for the Premier League title this time around. Tottenham Hotspur haven’t turbo-charged their recent upswing with a trinket either, but Mauricio Pochettino has built an extraordinary team on a relatively shoestring budget, with even the considerable disruption of an enforced season and a half at Wembley not quite blowing the club completely off course. Chelsea and Arsenal both appointed new managers in the summer, and their supporters might have been forgiven for considering this to be a transitional season as they got acquainted with their new manager. At each of these clubs, there seems to be a plan that has been carefully thought out. At Manchester United, the plan seems to have been to occasionally throw an enormous amount of money at a marquee signing and the hope for the best. Beyond that, there seems to be little coordination going on whatsoever within the club itself.
The talk of decline has been a slow, steady drip throughout the last few seasons or so. One of the most profitable football clubs on the planet has been able to dip into its expansively deep pockets for the occasional attention-hogging big signing, but precious little has been invested in the infrastructure of the club – even Old Trafford itself, for example, is showing signs of age and could do with some renovation – and this failure to consider Manchester United as a whole has extended way beyond this. With no director of football, a chief executive seemingly concerned only with delivering positive financial results, and dividends for directors remaining healthy even as the team coughs and splutter on the pitch, the “bottom line” has taken on a very specific meaning at Manchester United and it’s a definition that has little to do with football, it often seems. It remains a point worth reinforcing: until the Glazer family have left Manchester United, the club will fundamentally and primarily remain a cash cow for shareholders, with success on the pitch a desirable – but not essential – by-product of an endless chase for greater and greater financial returns.
Another era at Old Trafford will begin, then, but no-one knows exactly what it will look like, yet. The club’s official statement this morning confirmed that the club will be putting a caretaker-manager in place – the suggestion had been that this will be Michael Carrick, although Laurent Blanc has been favourably talked up already this morning and one can imagine the extent to which Ryan Giggs’ nose might have been twitching since the announcement was made – and will be embarking upon appointing a new manager at the end of the season. Beyond that, though, who knows? There isn’t exactly a plethora of highly talented coaches available right now – this, presumably, is underlining the club’s decision not to appoint a permanent replacement right now – and such has been the shapelessness of Manchester United in recent seasons that it’s difficult to imagine which face would fit the club right now. Zinedine Zidane understands the peculiar pressures felt by the Megaclubs but is relatively experienced and hasn’t had to carry out the sort of full-scale renovation that Manchester United’s playing operations currently needs. Mauricio Pochettino ticks a lot of boxes, but he recently signed a lengthy contract extension with Spurs and chairman Daniel Levy famously drives one of the hardest bargains in European football. It’s conceivable, but would likely be very expensive indeed.
Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that the arrival of Jose Mourinho at a football club starts a process of reducing said club to a Jose Mourinho-shaped singularity the moment he joins. Professional football has, in terms of the way in which clubs are set up, never been more collaborative. Coaching teams and scouting networks are extensive and clubs have never employed a broader range of different skill-sets in order to flourish in an environment that is more technical and nuanced than ever, and changing all the time. But such is the nature of Mourinho’s reductionist style that he sucks all discussion of his club into a black hole, and over recent seasons this approach has looked increasingly dated. With his fifty-sixth birthday coming up next month, it’s difficult to see whether he can modernise, even if he feels that it is necessary to do so.
We have talked on these pages about the “Mourinho trade-off” before. He’s been hanging around the game for such a long time that everybody knows what they’re going to get – unnecessary sniping in the media, football with the pallid inflection of a grey November morning, cloying “grace” when he can afford to be graceful, but always carrying a layer of unrepentant shittiness – before he’s even appointed. His track record of winning trophies, though, is pretty much peerless in the recent history of European club football, and that’s a mighty enticing carrot to hang before a football club executive in an age during which success must be instant and absolute. The problem with this is, of course, that if the trophies dry up he’s essentially denuded. Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have enhanced their reputations despite a lack of silverware because it has been clear that they have been building towards something. This is not a luxury that Jose Mourinho is ever afforded, and it rather feels as though he only has himself to blame for that.
If Manchester United supporters feel unshackled this morning, then, there’s a reason for that. The substantial issue of the Glazers, however, doesn’t disappear with Mourinho. This is a club with every advantage that a football club could ever hope for, with commercial revenues that eclipse everybody else in their domestic league and broadcasting revenues that fill just about every other club in Europe green with envy, and the club is as perfectly-placed as ever to challenge at the highest end of whichever competitions it finds itself. Replacing one man is easy enough, as the club has found today. Moving the senior management of the club away from a culture in which director dividends seem more important than winning actual football matches, however, is a different matter, and is something that only those concerned can effect.
Manchester United supporters will be hoping amongst hopes that this clean break will be that which finally shifts the club away from its directionless meanderings of the last five years or so. The club hasn’t got it right yet since the retirement of Alex Ferguson in 2013, but even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, so perhaps they will this time. For now, though, the club has work to do just to play catch-up with those around them. The spotlight has tilted away from a club that demands that glare perpetually, in recent years, but repairing any damage done will likely take more than merely replacing the manager, as has been demonstrated repeatedly since Ferguson retired. Perhaps things will be different, this time. If they’re not, the owners of the club could find themselves facing the ire of a large fan base, much of which feels somewhat shortchanged by the events of the last few years, and without the fig leaf of the publicity-absorbing Mourinho for cover.