Manchester United’s defeat at St James’ Park on Sunday will force another reassessment of Mourinho’s performance since arriving at Old Trafford. More questions will be asked about how, after bringing in eight players and spending more than £300 million, the title-winner in four countries has built such an insipid team.
It was United’s fifth defeat in the league, but perhaps one of the most damaging. After all, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool both won over the weekend, while Chelsea faces bottom-placed West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. If the west Londoners emerge victorious just three points will separate second and fifth.
United might not have entered Sir Alex Ferguson’s “squeaky bum time” just yet, but Mourinho’s side is now finds itself in a mighty tight spot. Champions League football next season is no longer the shoe-in that Ed Woodward presumed when handing Mourinho a new contract last month.
"Questions will be asked about how, after bringing in eight players and spending more than £300 million, the title-winner in four countries has built such an insipid team."
There are details and then the bigger picture. In once sense, United dominated at St James’ Park. Mourinho’s team enjoyed more than 60 per cent possession, took more shots and found the target more often as well. The team created good chances too, including Anthony Martial’s one-on-one with debutant Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka.
The record will also show that the visitors enjoyed twice the expected goals (xG) of the home side. It was one of those occasions when data fails to tell the real narrative. In truth United rarely clicked in the north east. After all, this is a Newcastle side that hadn’t won at home in the league since October, and was soundly beaten by Chelsea, United and Manchester City in recent months.
As ever, Mourinho saw fault in the details, not his strategy. Newcastle “fought like animals,” he said. The home side fought “for their point, a point is what they had in mind” and the Geordies came out victorious only because of United’s “defensive mistake.” Newcastle “had only one thing in mind and gave their lives to keep a clean sheet,” Mourinho concluded, with just a soupçon of the melodrama in which he truly excels.
Yet, the big picture does matter. It is the second time in three games that United has lost on the road, with City now 16 points ahead in the league and coasting towards the title. This was supposed to be the campaign in which United made a credible challenge, five years on from Ferguson’s retirement.
Progress under Mourinho has come, but a sound thrashing in the league to the rampant Blues was on nobody’s agenda at Old Trafford. In fact, Mourinho’s side is on course for a sub-80 point season, a total that would have taken the title just twice in the Premier League’s 25-year history. It’s all a bit middling when excellence is what the manager promised.
Some models now have United finishing behind Liverpool in third, while there is plenty of credible evidence in the fundamentals of United’s performances this season that suggest the points garnered to date are more than a little generous. Beyond results, Mourinho has built something that is less than the sum of its parts.
It is not unfair to suggest than in over 600 days at the helm, the manager has crafted a team that is overly reliant on individual brilliance, and has far less of the collective self than any other Mourinho team in memory bar his last disastrous season at Chelsea.
“The individual talent is there but to coordinate that into a team is Jose Mourinho’s job in the next few months,” believes former Red Gary Neville.
“He has to make them into a team. They look like a team that play five per cent below the intensity that they can play at and should play at. That’s what Jose Mourinho has to do. He has to mould this talented group of players into a team that can come together and can win the title. Next season will be Jose’s third season. He has to win it next season. They have to start preparing now.”
It probably doesn’t help that Mourinho is in the midst of yet another player feud, this time with talisman Paul Pogba. It takes very little guesswork to work out that while Mourinho wants his player to take on more defensive responsibility in a two-man central midfield, Pogba is seeking the kind of freedom to attack and create that he enjoyed at Juventus.
It is a notion that Mourinho dismisses. For the Portuguese coach midfielders – “and Paul is a midfielder” – must defend as well as they attack.
“For me box-to-box means box-to-box,” said Mourinho pointedly before United’s defeat at Newcastle. “You have to defend well, have the physical conditions to go to the other box, where you have to be good at scoring, creating, heading and then, when your team loses the ball, you have to go to the other box.”
It is an argument that defies much of the evidence, with Pogba at his imperious best in attacking situations, especially when given the freedom of defensive protection. He has neither freedom, nor protection at United.
To this end, it is odd, although not unsurprising, that Mourinho has failed to embrace a three-man midfield system that would get the most out of United’s £90 million Frenchman. It is a system where Pogba is free to attack on the understanding that two midfield colleagues are there to defend against any breakdown in possession. His performance at Everton in a 2-0 United victory underlines this point.
It would suit new signing Alexis Sanchez too. Indeed, the question of how to deploy Alexis, the free transfer whose stratospheric wages has been the subject of much discussion in the fourth estate, is an important one. Mourinho has seemingly already answered it by deploying the Chilean on the left in the position once occupied by Martial and Marcus Rashford.
While the young Englishman missed the trip to Tyneside with a muscular injury, Martial has been shifted to the right in recent games, a role that he neither likes nor one that garners the best from a talented player. After all, Martial’s ability to cut in off the left and shoot is the sole benefit of not deploying the forward in the central position where he is most dangerous.
If Mourinho crammed two players into one by making Martial and Rashford job-share, he has only incrementally increased his choices by recruiting Alexis at two young players’ expense. Three into one does not fit, a summary that may well come to a head in next summer’s transfer market.
This is to say little about the mess in United’s defensive – supposedly Mourinho’s specialty – or the imbalance in the squad the has manifestly not been fixed despite those eight acquisitions.
Mourinho rejects any criticism of his choices: of personnel, of tactics or of approach. United’s situation, he believes, is a work in progress, one that takes place in the spotlight that shines brightly on Old Trafford. He bemoans his players’ inability to execute his ideas, and of Pep Guardiola’s ability to spend his way out of any trouble.
Where the end-game takes United is another question though. For now, Mourinho has too few answers, although it is the very essence of management.
It was once unthinkable to question the Mourinho way, at least where it came to results or the means by which the manager obtained them. He was the master tactician, the brilliant strategist, the in-game tinkerer beyond reproach. That no longer appears to be the case.
Oh José, where art thou? Your team is in a tight spot!