In the aftermath of the deeply disappointing but painfully predictable 0-0 home draw with Hull City on Wednesday evening film columnist and United fan Darren Richman tweeted:
“The fetishisation of a team that’s deservedly 6th is surreal. People used to moan about the style in years Fergie’s teams won the league.”
The cult of a manager is not a new thing, but it certainly seems to be more common than it was 10-15 years ago. Today we have at least three ‘cult’ figures in charge of top clubs in England, men who combine a history of coaching excellence with strong, distinctive personalities and inspire deity-level worship from fans. Mourinho is the mischievous, Machiavellian, egotistical pragmatist, Klopp the unflinchingly decent, high-energy extrovert, Guardiola the intense introvert. All have a history of success and all possess the character and unwavering self-belief needed to manage at the top. Coaches are often now celebrated as much as players. In the case of those I have mentioned, perhaps more so.
Making managers almost mythical totems of success changes the way in which we assess them at our own club. They are given more time when things are not going to plan than your run of the mill coach would be and their faults more readily excused or explained away. Louis Van Gaal and Mourinho, for example, have both been given far more rope than the distinctly mortal David Moyes ever was. We also search for signs of their genius, and any improvement over what came before is attributed to their brilliance. Criticism or realism offered by objective or partial observers is shot down and everything is black and white, genius or stupidity. Rather like Trump in the US, dissent is not allowed. Poor results are explained away as being a necessary part of the ‘process’, or blamed on the need for ‘time’, or new players, or brainwashing by a previous coach, or the tides.
Chief Football Writer at the Independent Miguel Delaney has a theory about Jose Mourinho. In short, it is his contention, having followed the Portuguese’s career closely, that he is no longer quite the manager he once was. Personally I don’t necessarily agree, but I accept that we do not yet have enough information from his time at United to prove or disprove this hypothesis. What I have noticed, however, is that every time Mourinho’s team achieve a positive result or sequence of results these are thrown at Delaney as evidence that Jose is still a genius. It baffles me that fans look at what the team has produced this season and it’s position in the Premier League table and think this is conclusive proof that the man has lost none of his magic. Mourinho made his reputation winning titles and Champions Leagues, not scrabbling around to achieve a Champions League place.
And this is why Richman’s observation about this United team is relevant and entirely accurate. Mourinho has undoubtedly improved the club in some areas. I believe that whether he ultimately succeeds or fails, the Portuguese will leave a far stronger squad than that which he inherited. He has the club buying and, equally importantly, selling like an elite mover once again, as demonstrated by the sales of Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin for excellent fees given their indifferent periods at Old Trafford. The team is unquestionably more direct and creative than its predecessor, but then again it would be hard not to be. Attacking performances by United are exaggerated and the consistent creativity of other teams ignored, as if The Reds alone are shooting at will. Games in which little happens are excluded from the sample or a different reality is imagined. Poor results are explained away and the team is judged by an alternate outcome in which chances are not spurned, as if putting the ball into the net is not perhaps the most important area of team performance. “If we’d put those chances away we’d be top of the league!”
The reality is, as Richman says, that United are exactly where they deserve to be. The nine game winning run in late 2016/early 2017 was certainly a reason for optimism, as is the fact that the team has lost only once in 19 games. They are harder to beat than Van Gaal’s incarnation. Key players in the team began to perform at something approaching their best and Mourinho rediscovered his mojo, finding a lineup that worked and making game defining substitutions. This was the pragmatist we have so admired (and detested) over the years. But even during that run the collective was not purring. Teams were not obliterated. Every game was a trial, a long haul, ultimately decided by a moment or two of class from Pogba, Ibrahimovic or Mkhitaryan. United were winning ugly, or perhaps not in an aesthetically polished way. Of course, winning the hard way is not a bad thing, but ideally it should be interspersed with winning pretty, or a stepping stone on the way to consistent excellence.
The problem is that having made progress in the right direction (not nearly enough to worship what Mourinho has done to the degree to which some have) that progress has now almost completely reversed itself. United suddenly look jittery, disjointed and distinctly average again. Some reacted to the Hull draw as if the performance was good and it was just that darned finishing, the opposition goalkeeper and luck which had thwarted us once again. Yes, three excellent chances were spurned, but largely the team were wretched in the final third, struggled to retain the ball and could easily have conceded at least once. The balance was all wrong in the attacking zone and those key players have gone off the boil. The biggest problem with relying on three or four individuals to win you games is that they will inevitably wane and there is no one else capable of picking up the slack. Pogba and Ibrahimovic in particular look tired, which is unsurprising given that they’ve been expected to play twice most weeks since August.
Much as the physical demands that Klopp makes of his Liverpool team have caught up with his players, so the same can be said of a core of Mourinho’s most talented individuals. The schadenfreude enjoyed as Liverpool’s season self-destructed over the last eleven days and the criticism of the German from United fans has sometimes been framed in such a way that it demonstrates that Jose is the better manager after all. Yet that assessment assumes that something better is being experienced at Old Trafford. Whilst Mourinho’s team remain in both cups (and Klopp was deservedly lambasted for underestimating Wolves), there are quite a few parallels in the way both teams have suddenly run out of steam. However, Liverpool remain above United in the Premier League and their football at its peak this season has been way beyond anything we’ve witnessed from our own club. Both managers have made costly mistakes this campaign.
Worryingly, Mourinho is suddenly looking flawed once again. His substitutions no longer seem to be effective. The introduction of Wayne Rooney against Hull was downright bizarre and seemed to negatively impact performance. Of most concern, however, is his ongoing beasting and exclusion of Anthony Martial, United’s most talented and prolific player last season. Having repeatedly criticised the Frenchman this year, the manager suggested that if he played well against Wigan he would retain his place for this match. Martial did just that, assisting two goals in a promising performance only bettered by that of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He deserved to start again, and yet in his pre-match press conference Mourinho reneged on his promise and suggested that the player would not start as Mkhitaryan was playing better. No matter that the Armenian operates primarily on the right. No player has performed better on the left than Martial, even if his own form has been patchy. Without question, no alternative there has as much natural talent. Whilst the Frenchman is dropped and chastised for anything bar perfection, Marcus Rashford is asked again and again to toil in a position which he patently is not suited for and has not come close to mastering as a starter. To leave Martial out against Hull was folly, to ignore him as time slipped away complete madness.
And yet, as Darren suggested, the team, the individuals in it and the manager are often spoken of as if the universe is conspiring against their excellence and they are a bit of luck away from world domination. This despite an obviously questionable mentality. With four of those above United dropping points the Hull match was a wonderful opportunity to gain ground, and yet, with all of the motivation in the world, they could not deliver anything approaching a Champions League level performance against a woeful opponent. Still, constructive criticism on Twitter was met with abuse from some and criticism of Mourinho’s decisions addressed as if it were heresy. In my opinion it is way too early to be able to prove or debunk Delaney’s theory about the Portuguese. There is still a lot of work to be done on this squad. If United don’t finish top four (and that now looks a long shot) with the players they have then that will be failure, perhaps not for the manager’s tenure, but for the season. And if they do not qualify for the Champions League then they will have deserved not to, because United remain an average team, the sixth best in the Premier League and are nothing to write home about, let alone fetishise. Mourinho needs to do better, and so do many of his players.