The tale of the tape for José Mourinho’s Premier League campaign this season reads played 11, won seven, drawn two, and lost two. In that run 23 points have been garnered and United sits joint second in the table alongside Tottenham Hotspur, having scored 23 and conceded just five goals. Mourinho has all but guided his troops to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, winning four out of four, and his side is in the quarter-final of the Carabao Cup.
On first glance it’s a respectable, if not spectacular, start to the campaign. Yet, there is palpable tension enveloping Old Trafford. On the pitch United seemingly sacrificed any sense of momentum by playing for a draw against a vulnerable Liverpool side at Anfield and the team has struggled to recover its early season swagger. Since then there have been a couple of unconvincing displays against Benfica, victory over Swansea City in the Carabao Cup, a much-needed victory against Spurs, and damaging defeats away to Huddersfield Town and Chelsea.
Mourinho can point to a lengthy injury list, while the Huddersfield defeat could be forgotten as a one-off. Both are decent excuses, but it is José’s record away to top six opposition that is cause for considerable alarm. In that run against the top six the team has managed to record more than two shots on target on just twice, one of which was the 4-0 drubbing at Chelsea last season. The other damning observation is that the only goal scored in that sequence of results came from a player who has departed the club, Wayne Rooney. More than 1,000 minutes of football for a single goal.
Shots on target away to top six opposition under José Mourinho*All stats taken from BBC Sport
Off the pitch the Portuguese coach has openly flirted with Paris Saint-Germain, turned his fire against United’s fans, and has been forced to fend off questions about his style of football. To cast a cynical eye on recent events at Old Trafford, it could be argued that Mourinho is looking to divert scrutiny away from certain aspects of his history and record.
There is a disconnect manifesting under Mourinho. He HAS improved the side, he HAS handled the transfer market more effectively than his predecessors and he HAS brought trophies back to Old Trafford, but yet all is not as rosy as it might be. Frustrating for many fans is the sense that Mourinho reverts to type at the first sign of a test, seeking not to lose games, rather than thinking of solutions to win them; in effect placing his faith in reactive football.
Then there is the way he generally chooses to communicate – a style that doesn’t allow for any middle ground. There’s always a binary choice between his take and the “wrong” take – nuance be damned. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a character who thrives on conflict should choose to interpret everything in black and white.
Yet, everybody at the club, from the board right through to the fans, knew exactly what kind of character United had hired with Mourinho; a firebrand who’s capable of bringing silverware, while simultaneously burning down the trophy cabinet. Mourinho is also a figure who demands total loyalty to HIS cause and everyone needs to fall in line, from the boardroom to the stands. In a sense, perhaps that’s why he wants to create conflict because he needs to see who is truly onside with his vision. It’s the cult of Mourinho.
The toxic consequence of his approach is that debate and valid observations can be shut down under the mantra of “supporting the manager.” Every point is interpreted as a veiled barb or a critique, and instead of discussing the team’s performance, the focus will always be on manager.
Of course the siege mentality isn’t new to United supporters as Sir Alex Ferguson was a happy practitioner of this approach. Yet, he also brought an unprecedented level of success so it was far easier for fans to get behind the Scot without question.
When it coms to Mourinho the question is whether United’s manager is deliberately trying to spark up confrontation or if it is an innate quality in his being? If it is the former, then his motives also come under review. It is a puzzle given that the United position was the one he supposedly always coveted. Why, then, should he give the impression that he’s happy to leave sooner rather than later?
It is also worth recalling that the Mourinho arrived at United on the back of two chastening experiences, having outlasted his welcome at both Real Madrid and Chelsea. One might have thought that the manner of his departures in the Spanish and English capitals were reason enough to reassess his attritional methods. Or it may just be that Mourinho truly can’t help himself given that he’s a serial winner.
Another tag is rearing its ugly head as well – that Mourinho is “yesterday’s man.” There has been a debate as to whether Mourinho truly knows how to construct a fluid attacking unit in the light of the work produced by Mauricio Pochettino and, more painfully, Pep Guardiola.
It’s up to José to prove the doubters wrong, but the combination of a voracious appetite for silverware, a personality that requires validation and potentially being “found out” could be enough to send him over the edge – or at the very least inform us that he has just one or two big jobs left before fulfilling his dream of coaching the Portuguese national team.
The manager’s course of José versus the world does grate, but more worryingly it is also draining. The emotional investment is exacting on supporters, let alone players, especially as the Portuguese thrives on being football’s equivalent of Ares, the Greek God of War.
Mourinho still has a reputation for being a winner and supporters can live in the hope that he delivers success in spite of being a capricious enigma. He still has some wiggle room simply because he achieves results. It’s fully plausible that United’s manager could have his team back within touching distance of City by the end of the year, especially if Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović return firing on all cylinders.
"Against the top six the team has managed to record more than two shots on target on just twice, one of which was the 4-0 drubbing at Chelsea."
United’s manager still yearns to win big trophies. That much is clear, and it would not be wise to bet against him achieving just that this season. Perhaps he will land more major silverware with United but, unlike Ferguson, José is seemingly finding it difficult to adapt to an ever-changing football landscape.
Institutionally, United is far from perfect, but Mourinho knew that from the beginning and in fairness he has made some changes for the better. Indeed, one can argue that there’s a touch of melodrama to the situation and subsequent analysis given the reality – United lies second in the league and the team is performing to expectations in the cup competitions. Maybe that’s the biggest disappointment because there has been tangible progress to match the soap opera.
Then again, Mourinho and melodrama never seem too far away. It remains to be seen whether the United manager can shake the habit of a lifetime or retread the path he’s walked before.
At the moment the signs aren’t promising.