Jose Mourinho…. His name is never far from the lips of British football fans, whether they admire him or loathe him. Of course, that’s exactly what the man himself desires, though the reasons for his need to be constantly in the headlines vary depending on who you speak to….
I’ve always regarded myself as a balanced, fair-minded, rational football fan. Yes, I’m a die-hard United fan, have been for most of my life, and would never apologise to anyone for blindly tying my footballing loyalties, hopes and dreams to the Club from south-west Manchester. However, I am not so blind that I cannot see others’ points of view or rationale when it comes to debates on issues affecting both United and football in general.
That’s why I was more than prepared to give Jose Mourinho the ‘benefit of the (many) doubts’ I had about both his persona and management abilities whenever he was announced as the new Manchester United manager in summer 2016, appointed mere days after Dutchman Louis van Gaal had been ruthlessly dismissed by the United board just hours after winning a 12th F.A. Cup for the Red Devils.
Mourinho had long been a thorn in United’s side, first coming to prominence as a manager outside of his native Portugal when he masterminded F.C. Porto’s unlikely journey to a European Cup triumph in 2004, a journey which included a painful ‘stop-over’ at Old Trafford, his side famously scoring a last minute equaliser at the Scoreboard End to send Sir Alex Ferguson’s much-lauded team crashing out of Europe on a 3-2 aggregate scoreline at the first knock-out phase. Mourinho had skipped down the touchline in delight to join in the celebrations with his players after that late goal, an enduring memory of a terrible night for United fans.
It got worse after he pitched up at Chelsea the following summer, spending large chunks of owner Roman Abramovich’s ill-gotten wealth to bolster a squad which then proceeded to dominate the Premier League for two seasons, United trailing in their wake until the emergence of the precocious talents of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo helped turn the tide back in Sir Alex’s favour.
After finally falling out with Abramovich and leaving Chelsea in September 2007 over what Mourinho regarded as continual interference in team affairs by the Blues’ board, the Portuguese finally re-entered management with Italian giants Inter Milan during the summer of 2008, whom he motivated into claiming two consecutive Serie A titles, and later, possibly his most remarkable achievement, taking the Milan club to a European Cup triumph over heavily fancied perennials Bayern Munich in 2010, having disposed of one of the all-time great sides, Barcelona, at the semi-final stage.
That triumph effectively earned him a shot at one of football’s biggest jobs: managing Real Madrid. His tenure at the Bernabeu brought him into direct opposition with a man who would become his nemesis, Pep Guardiola, then all-conquering boss of Barcelona. Mourinho’s time at Madrid was a qualified success: he did manage to return Real to the top of La Liga, claiming the league title in 2012, but he couldn’t sustain that position in the face of fierce competition from the Catalan giants and also city rivals Atletico. When the chance to return to Chelsea arose in summer 2013, he was, by then, desperate to get out of Spain, with constant talk of dressing-room discord at Real, with top players like Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas in almost open revolt against their spiky manager.
His return to West London initially seemed like it might be the fairytale that all Chelsea fans hoped it would be, with the Mourinho-inspired Blues making it to the semi-final of the European Cup, before falling to Atletico Madrid, and finishing 3rd in the Premier League behind Manchester City. However the following season his side were unstoppable domestically, winning the title with three games to spare… little did anyone suspect it was very much the beginning of the end for Mourinho at Chelsea. Less than six months later he had been sacked, as the defending Champions lost 9 of their opening 16 games in the 2015-16 season. Mourinho had been at his petulant “best” during that period, publicly haranguing club doctor Eva Carneiro for innocently doing her job by giving treatment to an injured player during the closing minutes of a game that was ultimately drawn. After she was dismissed from her role at Chelsea shortly afterwards, Mourinho was named in a legal action Ms. Carneiro brought against the football club; no-one was in any doubt that he had been a fundamental ‘player’ in the drama that ended Eva’s association with the Blues.
And so, whenever Louis van Gaal’s passive, “possession-for-possession’s-sake” style of football was deemed an anathema to most United fans, and he was dismissed by Ed Woodward just hours after ironically winning the F.A. Cup, one replacement candidate was immediately available and on most pundits’ lips: Jose Mourinho.
I had many reservations about the appointment at that time. Mourinho had had undoubted success as a manager (no-one can argue with the trophies on his CV), but he was known as a pragmatist, placing ‘stopping the opposition from playing’ above all other considerations. It wasn’t the way United were used to operating, though in fairness we had just endured 3 years of utterly turgid, uninspiring football under David Moyes and van Gaal, so perhaps it is churlish to look back and try to paint Mourinho as something worse than those pair.
However, beyond his perceived preferences in terms of tactical set-up, the man himself was known to be a shameless narcissist, hogging the media headlines almost by any means necessary, and had gotten himself involved in numerous needless bust-ups both with opposition coaches and players (he was (in)famously caught on camera poking then Barcelona assistant manager Tito Vilanova in the eye during the final of the 2011 Supercopa de Espana) and, as pointed out above, even with his own players and backroom staff during his career.
His time at United to date has been littered with unfulfilled expectations and damning disappointments, despite winning two trophies in his inaugural season. His record against the other perceived members of the “Top Six” clubs is poor, with only a single victory over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City (a 1-0 win in the 2016-17 League Cup), the other clashes with United’s city rivals seeing the Blues dominate possession and chances in their victories, gallingly even at Old Trafford.
His return to Stamford Bridge last season ended with Antonio Conte’s side scoring four goals past David de Gea, Mourinho again revealing his nasty side when accusing the Italian of ‘showing disrespect’ by celebrating the victory with the home fans before the final whistle… This season’s visit was no better, Chelsea again deservedly winning the encounter, albeit by a much narrower margin. Yes, United won the return game at Old Trafford at the end of February, but by no means could it be said that they played well for long periods of that game, Chelsea perhaps unfortunate to see a late Alvaro Morata ‘equalising’ strike ruled out for off-side.
Against Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur this season, United were fortunate to take victory at Old Trafford courtesy of a late Anthony Martial winner in a game that could have gone either way, but were comprehensively defeated 2-0 at Wembley in January, with Spurs very unlucky not to make their total domination of the game reflect in a larger margin of victory on the scoreboard. It does not bode well for the forthcoming F.A. Cup semi-final tie….
Arguably this season’s drop-off in United players’ form and confidence was initiated by Mourinho’s own decision to go to Anfield in mid-October and concentrate his side’s entire effort in seeking to nullify Liverpool’s substantial attacking threat, playing for a 0-0 draw, and just hoping that United might catch the old enemy on a rare counter-attack and secure an unlikely victory. The ‘funny’ thing is that it almost worked for him, Romelu Lukaku not capitalising fully on the single piece of attacking play United produced late in the 1st half in an otherwise drab, defensive display that, frankly, betrayed the attacking traditions Manchester United have always been associated with. Afterwards Mourinho declared himself satisfied with the point, but whilst the result may not have been too shabby, the manner in which it was achieved was soul-destroying for many Red Devils fans, basically abandoning any attempt to carry a threat to the Liverpool defence.
Again, United emerged with a 2-1 victory in the recent return game against Liverpool at Old Trafford, yet once more the result masked a performance from the home side that was anything but dominant, Marcus Rashford’s two opportunist strikes coming almost against the general run of play, with Liverpool dominant in the game, especially in the 2nd half.
Those amongst the United support who still lend their backing to the current manager have argued a number of points in his defence. Some claim that this is “not Mourinho’s side” yet; however, we are now deep into the second season under his guidance, and whilst I accept that he has not perhaps been granted every target in the transfer windows that he would have liked, he has overseen a number of significant arrivals, most for large transfer fees, and yet for me, none of these players have improved, much less thrived, under his care, bar perhaps Nemanja Matic and, lately, Romelu Lukaku.
By contrast, a gaze across town would seem to indicate that Guardiola has not only added quality to his already large squad, but more importantly has actually improved the standard of play of quite a few players he inherited from the previous regime, none-more-so than Raheem Sterling.
Mourinho, sour at the best of times, has been quick to criticize several of his players in the public domain, something which I strongly disagree with, and something that Sir Alex Ferguson rarely, if ever, did during his 26-year tenure at United. Luke Shaw has been lambasted more than once, and whilst Luke has not always performed to the standard expected of him as a top left-back at a big club, I fail to see the benefit of publicly berating a young player in this manner; all it does is destroy whatever confidence he had, and alienates him unnecessarily. If Mourinho was so unhappy with his performances, why not wait and let him know about it behind closed doors, and have the lad work on his game with extra training…?
Another player who seems to have gone backwards under Mourinho’s stewardship is Paul Pogba, who undoubtedly possesses the talent to become one of the leading attacking midfielders in world football. However, our manager has been intent on deploying Pogba in a holding, defensive midfield role alongside Matic since the beginning of the season, a role which the boy is clearly not suited to, and which robs the team of his abilities as the orchestrator of attacking moves further up the pitch. I have watched on in stunned bemusement as Mourinho repeatedly refuses to acknowledge the evidence set before his eyes: that Pogba is not, and in all likelihood, NEVER will be a defensive midfielder. He simply does not have the positional discipline to play in that position. Yet, instead of doing something proactive about a worsening situation, Mourinho has (predictably) effectively ‘dug his heels in’ and continued to use Pogba in a role he can’t perform to the level required, thereby undermining the player’s confidence, hurting the team, and invariably ending up with the current situation: a discouraged, alienated player, who is extremely unhappy and probably wants to leave United in the summer.
Some fans have pointed out that, despite all these difficulties, United remain in 2nd position in the Premier League, with only a freakishly brilliant season from our cross-town rivals undermining what would otherwise be a very acceptable season in terms of results and improvement on what we witnessed last season. Whilst that would seem to be factual when glancing at the league table, can anyone of a Red persuasion actually say they have enjoyed more than a handful of United performances this season? I know I haven’t. The standout performance of the season so far was our 2-0 win over Everton at Goodison Park back on New Year’s Day, when (surprise, surprise) Paul Pogba was given a free role to roam around the midfield area, picking up the ball from the likes of Matic and Ander Herrera (another player who has ‘disappeared’ this season) and providing chances for the likes of Martial and Jesse Lingard.
However, by then, we’d been “treated” to the sight of United surrendering any intent to have possession of the football in a woeful defeat to City at Old Trafford on 10th December which effectively ended the title race before Christmas; a disgraceful Manchester Derby display that had been preceded by a hugely fortunate 3-1 victory over an ordinary Arsenal team in North London, during which David de Gea put in one of the all-time great goalkeeping displays to save us from a shocking defeat.
For some, progress into the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League was seen as a potential ‘season saver’, even though only the most ludicrously optimistic Reds would have named United as potential winners of Europe’s elite club competition this season. Whenever United were paired with Spanish side Sevilla in the draw for the Last 16 Round, hopes remained high that the side could progress into the Quarter-Finals, perhaps an accurate indicator of where the Club stand currently amongst Europe’s top sides.
Mourinho put paid to those hopes. In what has to be one of the worst performances of any United side away in Europe in living memory, he set his side up to be ultra-defensive in southern Spain, handing the initiative to a side with known defensive frailties (Liverpool one of quite a few sides to have scored multiple times against Sevilla this season). We watched on in disbelief as Manchester United were saved from a royal hiding only by the unbelievable reflexes of their Spanish goalkeeper, somehow emerging with a 0-0 draw they most certainly didn’t merit. Sevilla had shown themselves to be nothing more than a competent European side, because a truly top side would have beaten United convincingly, so poor was their effort.
So, thinking we’d “gotten away with it”, thousands turned up at Old Trafford the other week (with millions more tuned in around the globe), expecting Mourinho to have learnt his lesson, and United to come out and put Sevilla to the sword on our own pitch….we should have known better. Beyond the opening few minutes, United again looked toothless, Mourinho inexplicably naming the rusty, awkward Marouane Fellaini (making his first start since November) in midfield, leaving attacking talents like Juan Mata, Pogba and Martial kicking their heels on the bench. Predictably, once they seen how pedestrian and uninspired their hosts were, Sevilla stamped their own plan on the game, and by the time substitute Wissam Ben Yedder finally gave them the breakthrough away goal they deserved, United were a spent force, lost in Mourinho’s straitjacketed ‘tactics’.
Yet, instead of being contrite and acknowledging his errors in both tactics and team selection for both legs, our obstinate, pigheaded manager rubbed salt into our wounds with one of the most tasteless, insensitive press conferences I’ve ever witnessed, claiming that United getting knocked out of Europe ‘was nothing new’, that he’d done it to us before himself, and that he “didn’t think the performance was bad”.
Just when you thought this arrogant, egotistical, self-praising man couldn’t lower himself any further, he emerged the following Friday morning for a press conference ahead of the F.A. Cup quarter-final tie with Brighton at Old Trafford and proceeded to launch into a 12-minute rant defending HIMSELF. Seemingly if you think he’s not doing a good job at United, you’re “brainless” or an “idiot”.
You’d think that after that rant the team would come out and steamroller the Seagulls into the ground the following day… not so. Instead, we were subjected to more nervous, nail-biting, cagey football as the visitors largely carried the threat to United, who were once again somewhat fortunate to leave the field 2-0 victors after 90 minutes of mostly rearguard action. The players looked shorn of confidence, afraid to try anything ‘risky’ in case their watching overlord took offence and hooked them…seemingly poor Luke Shaw once again didn’t understand that he should have been ‘defending’ whenever Mourinho was screaming at him to ‘get forward’ during the opening 45 minutes, so he didn’t even emerge after the break; a young lad who probably can’t wait to get a transfer to anywhere else come June.
Like Shaw, I’m done (with Mourinho). As far as I’m concerned I’ve “done my duty” in giving him, as a new manager at United, time to prove he was worthy of confidence, loyalty and support.
I do not believe he can take United back to the summit of English football, much less European football. His methods run contrary to everything Manchester United have always stood for: attacking, ‘adventurous’ football with wing play to the fore; players encouraged to go out there and express & enjoy themselves, show their abilities, put the opposition under immense, sustained pressure. Instead, we have passive, intimidated players who are more afraid of irritating their manager by departing from his instructions than annoying the fans with continually negative, stale, safety-first “football”.
Of course, it’s unlikely that Ed Woodward and the board will have the gumption to sack Mourinho in the summer, even if he ends this campaign with no silverware to show for it. For one, there are a limited number of managers in Europe with the required ‘pedigree’ to replace him, and most of those are already employed by big clubs. There’s also the fact that United have backed Mourinho with substantial purchases over the past 18 months, and to dismiss him now would risk having to ‘start again’ with another manager’s ‘shopping list’.
So, in all likelihood, unless he himself jumps ship for another big job (not beyond the realms of possibility for a man who has yet to even acquire a home in the north-west of England, despite being at United for almost 2 years), we are stuck with Mourinho for now. I guess I can only hope that he somehow proves me wrong, proves my doubts and fears are baseless. Trust me, NOTHING would make me happier, because then my Club would be restored to its rightful place at the summit of English and European football….but I’m not holding my breath. I’m not a believer in Jose Mourinho, and I realise I never have been.