Manchester United: “Mea Culpa” Disappears From The Dictionary
There is a song by the rock band Led Zeppelin that often seems to spring to mind when thinking of the state of the modern world. Adapted from a 1927 song written by the blues guitarist Blind Willie Johnson and recorded for their 1976 Album “Presence”, the song’s title alone, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, sounds as dated now as the original recording of the song must have sounded to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant more than forty years ago. It is a truth universally acknowledged that, in modern football, everything is always the fault of somebody else. “Mea culpa” long ago became a redundant phrase for anybody connected with the game.
Perhaps the biggest irony of Jose Mourinho’s post-match comments at Old Trafford last night following Manchester United’s insipid slide out of the Champions League against Sevilla is that Mourinho simply has no excuse. Manchester United is one of the planet’s biggest football clubs. Even when misfiring in the league, they can attract the attention of just about any coach or player they like bar a very, very select few. They have the money to spend, and they have spent it. Their commercial revenues are amongst the highest in the world, and as members of the Premier League they have a television deal that almost every other club on the planet would kill for. Every single hand is loaded in their favour.
Even the circumstances surrounding last night’s match favoured the home team. Manchester United took to the field off the back of a confidence-building win against Liverpool last weekend which had been fuelled by a stellar first half performance from Marcus Rashford. Sevilla, meanwhile, had lost at home to Valencia at the weekend, a sure sign that this was no vintage team that they were facing. And while the lack of an away goal in Spain a couple of weeks ago wasn’t perfect for the return leg, to go there and get a draw was a creditable building block from which the team should have been able to push on and into the quarter-finals of the competition.
Instead, a familiar litany of odd decisions came through from the mind of Jose. Marcus Rashford was shifted to the other side of the pitch. Marouane Fellaini started in favour of Paul Pogba, one of the players for whom Manchester United have paid a beyond premium rate because he has sufficient talent to be able to change the course of a match in one moment of inspiration. There was a talk of an injury, but this injury wasn’t so severe that he couldn’t enter game as a subsitute for Fellaini with an hour played. Other than that, this was yet another viewing of the stodgy Manchester United with whom we have all become so familiar in recent years. This was a team that appeared to have been set up as though they were the underdogs, and if there’s one thing that we know for certain, it’s that Manchester United are never the underdogs.
We have commented on this site before that Mourinho’s tactical straitjacket paints him into a corner of his own creation. Perhaps a sense of elan on the part of the players, the possibility that they might attempt to actually entertain the 75,000 people who’ve paid a considerable amount of money to be there, would soften the blow if or when defeat comes. Of course there will always supporters who will be angry in the event of a defeat, but there may well be others for whom the sting of defeat may just be ameliorated somewhat by the idea that at least the team went out and gave it a go. Losing in the manner that his team did, though, leaves Mourinho completely exposed. All that money. All that talent. “And for what?”, might well be considered Manchester United supporters’ reply to this.
His post-match press conference was a simiarly depressingly predictable spectacle. “I know this has happened at Manchester United before because I have sat in this chair as manager of Porto and of Real Madrid. I don’t think it is something new for this club.” “I don’t want to make a drama out of this defeat. It’s not the end of the world. It’s football and we have another match on Saturday.” Well, let’s take a moment to pause to consider those two statements, and how tone deaf they sound.
“I know this has happened at Manchester United before because I have sat in this chair as manager of Porto and of Real Madrid. I don’t think it is something new for this club” could easily be interpreted as mockery of either Manchester United’s relative paucity of success in the Champions League since last winning the trophy eleven years ago, an apparent allusion to this sort of failure being the responsibility of the club as an institution rather than on him as a manager. It’s not the sort of statement that sounds likely to endear him to those who are already losing patience with the standard of fare on offer since he arrived at the club. And as for bringing up the two times that he beat Manchester United as the manager of other clubs, well, this hardly seems likely to satisfying the feelings of those who may be considering starting to agitate for his removal from the club.
“I don’t want to make a drama out of this defeat. It’s not the end of the world. It’s football and we have another match on Saturday.” Well, here’s the thing. Mourinho has been around the block a few times. He should surely know that the history of Manchester United over the last sixty years places European football at the front and centre of the identity of the club. The Busby Babes died in pursuit of the European Cup. That Night In Barcelona became perhaps the defining moment of Alex Ferguson’s twenty-seven years as the manager of the club. These nights at Old Trafford are special. Or, at least, they should be.
It seems inconceivable that he doesn’t understand this, but a knockout Champions League match at Old Trafford is never just another football match. These matches are those around his reputation and the club’s sense of self will come to be built. We could be generous and consider this a “lost in translation” moment were it not for the fact that Mourinho’s English is perfectly serviceable. These sounded like the words of a man attempting to sound nonchalant as cracks in the wall start to become visible behind him. And that face, the face which he pulls – whether knowingly or not – following difficult results, often feels like the beginning of the end of a chapter. It’s a conversation that we’ve had before that we’re just going to leave the question open as a piece of rhetoric: is this all another example of the Jose Mourinho Three Year Managerial Meltdown, yet again?
At the heart of Jose Mourinho and his philosophy rest two key truths. Firstly, he has taken being the idea of being results-driven to its logical conclusion. His style of football has been proven to deliver them before, and it is the fundamental lust for trophies – and there aren’t enough to go round to placate everybody, even amongst the mega-clubs – that fuels him being passed from big name to big name. But everything else depends on this success. There’s little stylish football, to speak of, and the constant blame-shifting, whether to other managers or players, referees, or, well, anybody Jose Mourinho is grating to say the least. Like sharks that have to keep swimming or they’ll die from oxygen starvation, Mourinho’s teams have to keep winning, or eventually the scales will start to fall from the eyes of observers.
Secondly, there is his propensity to lash out and throw others under the bus when things aren’t going so well, and it’s difficult to interpret his post-match comments last night as being a case of throwing Manchester United under the bus. If interpreted generously, they were an admission that his current team isn’t good enough to win this year’s Champions League. This may be honest – admirably so, even – but it’s also his responsibility, even if it may be considered a rare example of humility gone very wrong indeed. If his suggestion was, however, that none of this was his fault because he’s knocked Manchester United out of the same competition before, then that suggests a separation of manager from club that few United supporters will surely find acceptable.
There are those who say that PSG are waiting in the wings, that the glamour and money of Paris lies in wait for Jose Mourinho if only he can wrest himself away from Old Trafford. But when we consider the opulent aspirations of the owners of that club, how long might – presuming it to exist in the first place – that interest last? And whilst Mourinho may have signed a contract extension with Manchester United at the end of January, the question facing the club today is that of whether being in the running for the FA Cup and playing for second place in the Premier League is an acceptable state of affairs. The Glazers may well be satisfied that record profits were posted in the last set of company accounts – largely as a result of the first year of the current television contract kicking in – but by the end of this season it will be five years since the club last won the Premier League and seven since it last got beyond the quarter-finals stage of the Champions League.
No football club has a divine right to sit at the very top table forever. Manchester United only need to look to the team that they defeated last weekend to see that, and though there has been a degree of improvement for the club in the Premier League this season, few would bet that they’re going to be catching Manchester City this season or perhaps even next. And that undoubtedly stings. The arrival of Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford was supposed to be about more than incremental improvement over several years, though. This, after the less than successful period during which David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal tried with little success to build a post-Ferguson empire, was the big name signing, the moment at which other clubs were supposed to start being “afraid” of big, bad Manchester United again. And that, by and large, hasn’t happened.
Perhaps we’ll see a change of tack from Jose Mourinho over the course of the remainder of this season. Perhaps second place in the Premier League will be secured with room to spare, the FA Cup will be won, and the club will go into the summer in something approaching a buoyant mood, with a coherent plan to clear out some dead wood from the playing staff and build a team which plays as fearlessly as the United teams of old. At the moment, though, the Portuguese leopard inhabiting the manager’s office at Old Trafford doesn’t look like changing his spots. As such, it feels as likely as not that the club’s post-Ferguson transitional period will continue to run for the time being, until somebody – perhaps Mourinho, perhaps not – stumbles across a cocktail that can give their neighbours across the city at least pause for thought again.