If Mourinho can’t manage the United job, then who can?
What if Jose Mourinho is right and it really is everybody else’s fault? Friday morning’s Manchester United press conference lasted just three minutes and in his short, muted answers, Mourinho seemed not so much resigned as indifferent to his fate. There was no light in his eyes and nothing of the old defiance or chutzpah.
His future at United seems limited; a defeat to Newcastle United in this evening’s 5.30pm kick off could well prove the final straw. For weeks, before the season had even begun, there has been a macabre public sport in watching Mourinho become increasingly isolated, railing against the world, quoting Hegel, demanding respect, feuding with Paul Pogba and, all the time, not winning games. Old Trafford has been a haunted house since Alex Ferguson vacated the manager’s office and Mourinho, tasked with recalibrating the win/loss ratio of the most glamorous club in English football history, looks set to join the list of men who found Fergie’s shadow just too long.
In his first few seasons in English football, Mourinho presented himself as a dashing figure with an uncontainable energy and a comically boastful belief in his brilliance. He was young and at once amusingly and preposterously vain. He won titles, just as he had promised he would, propelling Chelsea to their first league title in half a century in 2005, fielding a team that was breathtakingly efficient and then backing it up with another title in the 2005/06 season, after which he casually fired his winner’s medal in the crowd at Stamford Bridge (They handed him minutes later: he chucked that, too). When he moved to Inter Milan in 2008, he spoke almost entirely in Italian in his first press conference; he breezily claimed to have mastered the language in just three weeks.
Mourinho had such unassailable faith in himself it never occurred to those around him not to share it. He was always a short-term specialist, with his combative, demanding personality leading to inevitable personality clashes and controversies and, sooner or later, his departure. But he always had that glittering record as his calling card. You look, now, at the man in charge of United and wonder where that Mourinho has gone. Where is that absurdly self-assured figure who sat back in his seat at Chelsea, not so much managing as regally surveying his empire at work?
That Mourinho was a style icon: tailored suits, sombre shades; the public school uniform look adopted by Pep Guardiola; winter scarves. The Mourinho at Old Trafford often looks as if the alarm didn’t go off on match day, forcing him to rummage around the floor of his wardrobe in the Lowry Hotel for whatever pair of tracksuit bottoms and fleece came to hand before rushing out the door, coffee on the run. It’s as if he has come to the conclusion that everything is bullshit, including fashion.
Yesterday, Mourinho was reminded United have gone four games without a win and the club hasn’t gone five without a win once since 1990. He was asked if he would accept that kind of a run wasn’t good enough for a club of United’s size. “Yes,” he replied wearily. “I accept.” Of all the responses – long-winded, self-glorying, funny – that brief reply may be among the most significant of his press-conference history. It felt like a plea of guilty. Right now, Mourinho is out of friends and all but out of chances. Last week came the public dressing down of Paul Pogba. This week, Antonio Valencia offered a hasty social media apology after inadvertently “liking” an Instagram post advocating the sacking of Mourinho. Somewhere, Matt Busby weeps or, perhaps, laughs.
Against Valencia on Tuesday evening, United were goalless and lacked clear purpose, inventiveness and energy; they looked like a broken team. They sit 10th in the Premier League and the season has been reduced to a shambolic power struggle between Mourinho and Pogba. And if Mourinho cannot organise his players into a shape capable of beating Newcastle – who are without a league win and with just four goals scored – what hope is there for the rest of the season?
Because of all that, this evening’s game feels momentous. The mad thing about this situation is Mourinho’s essential claim – that he is one of the greatest managers in the world – is true. His ability to come into a club, to then bulldoze through the culture of apathy and build teams capable of storming to success has been extraordinary. He has recently argued, both predictably and perversely, that guiding United to second place in last year’s Premier League ranked among his best-ever achievements. He was hinting, with customary emphasis, that his squad, despite its salary scale, was overrated and not that good. And maybe that is true.
You get the impression Mourinho is seething. That he is furious with Pogba’s disenchantment and his feigned indifference. Furious because he feels trapped by Ed Woodward’s refusal so sanction a summer signing any more significant than Brazil’s Fred. That everyone can’t wait to tell him what Paul Scholes has just said. That the English media adore Pep Guardiola. That Jurgen Klopp won’t stop smiling. That everyone seems to think Maurico Pochettino, who has won nothing, would be the ideal man to take over at United. That he can’t escape Ferguson. Mainly, he seems bewildered and a tiny bit sad that everyone seems to have forgotten he had all this magic.
Auras disappear. If United don’t win this year’s league – and they won’t – then six years will have passed since Ferguson’s farewell title. The money and power and momentum have shifted across town to City. It feels as if United have reached their first great crossroads of the Premier League era. If the Special One is forced out, United will have dispensed with three very different managers in less than six seasons. And if Mourinho found the task of reinventing United impossible, who is to say his successor will have any better luck? The pressure to restore that aura of invincibility becomes greater; every bad streak becomes a calamity; supporters and the board become nervous and soon come the calls for another sacking.
In their pomp, United fans used to enjoy the sight of Liverpool’s failing and starting from scratch, every year another further removed from their glory. There were eight different managers at Anfield while Ferguson chewed gum and won English league titles. Now, United’s fans are beginning to get a feel of that climate of nervousness and panicked change.
Mourinho’s recent public pronouncements have begun to sound like the desperate pleas of a defendant already condemned. Yet he was a Premier League-winning manager just over three years ago with Chelsea. And yet he took 81 points with United just last year. The world won’t listen but if it is true that managing United has broken Mourinho’s spirit, then the Red Devils are in trouble.
You get the impression Mourinho is furious with Pogba’s disenchantment and his feigned indifference