We’ll always have Wembley and Stockholm. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s late header, Paul Pogba’s long-range strike, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s flicked finish. These are the feel-good moments that football fans savour – the stuff from which memories are made. They’ll be more of these moments under José Mourinho. After all, he has spent a career hoovering up trophies. Mourinho has also spent much of the past two decades combusting in the most spectacular fashion. It’s never a good look and the writing for José’s Manchester United future is already on the wall.
Mourinho’s preponderance to conflict is essential to his philosophy. Where the potential exists he will magnify it; where there is none, he will create it. He uses conflict to build and test loyalty, and to increase performance. Mourinho wants players that will run through a proverbial wall – and distrusts those who will not.
"The meta concern is that the pattern repeats: conflict with owners, players, the media and supporters. The end result is a manager out the door."
Mourinho’s conflict building at United had been confined to a perpetual war with the media and to a select group of players. This week, however, the former Real Madrid and Chelsea manager intensified his campaign against United supporters, seemingly having been irked by what he claims was an injudicious reaction to Marcus Rashford’s substitution in the Premier League fixture with Tottenham Hotspur last weekend.
There were audible jeers as Anthony Martial joined the game in place of Rashford, with Mourinho believing that the reaction was targeted not at the younger men, but fellow striker Romelu Lukaku.
“I would like the supporters to explain to me why they don’t support him so much because he gives everything and I think it is not fair when scoring the goal or not scoring the goal makes the whole difference,” Mourinho said. “I don’t think it is fair at all. So I’m a bit disappointed, but not with him. I really don’t understand some reactions. Are they [the fans] Red Devils?”
Mourinho preempted his comments by placing his fingers over his lips after United’s victory. It was seemingly a message to supporters to quieten any protests. The coach made another hand gesture towards supporters – this time chattering his fingers – after United’s win against Benfica on Tuesday night.
Supporters might tell a different story of the reaction to Rashford’s substitution on Sunday. It’s a story of growing frustration with Mourinho’s self-limiting tactics, and the failure to get more out of the talent at his disposal. The football is moribund, if normally effective.
Martial and Rashford are a case in point. In the pair Mourinho possesses two of the finest young forwards in Europe, but is unwilling to fully unleash the talent at hand, effectively reducing two talents to one by making them job-share. Indeed, Sunday’s crowd reaction was surely of disappointment that the ever excellent Rashford was departing the scene, not a commentary on Lukaku’s performance or Matial’s entrance.
Mourinho when further, writing in his match day programme column that he hoped supporters “enjoy the game more than some of you did against Tottenham.” What his comment added as a passive aggressive jibe, it lacked in sincerity. He went on to note that “fans normally are behind the team,” in what appeared to be a dig at the Old Trafford atmosphere.
“There are differing views amongst supporters on precisely how to interpret the manager’s comments,” the Manchester United Supporters Trust, countered on Wednesday. “However it’s probably fair to say there is a universal desire within the stadium to see atmosphere improved.”
In fact, the decline in atmosphere at Old Trafford has long roots, dating back to all-seater stadia, ticket price increases, and the ever growing prevalence of United as a tourist destination for visitors around the globe. That poor atmosphere is put into sharp contrast by United’s excellent and very noisy away support.
All of this would look better if Mourinho hadn’t spent so much time fluttering his eyelids at Paris Saint German in recent times – a contract negotiating tactic no doubt, but one that calls the manager out as a hypocrite for questioning supporters’ loyalty.
Outside of this week’s Mourinho versus-the-fans spat, the Portuguese is demonstrating the kind of edge-of-reason behaviours that got him sacked at Chelsea – twice – and Real Madrid. Check for evidence.
While the perpetual war with the fourth estate is part of Mourinho’s MO, it is typically counter-productive. If he is after better column inches, killing them with kindness is normally a stronger strategy. Mourinho’s increasingly tetchy and occasionally incoherent press conferences have become car-crash TV – worth the MUTV subscription alone.
Perhaps more concerning is Mourinho’s self-confessed rush to judgement about players, including Bastian Scheweinsteiger who was unceremoniously dumped into the reserves and even removed from the clubs books as an asset. The manager was later forced into a climbdown.
Meanwhile, his public humiliation of Luke Shaw continues, the latest instalment a bizarre admission that Shaw isn’t featuring because there is too much competition at left-back – despite the squad containing no other natural left-backs. Then there is the inconsistent handling of Martial, Mkhitaryan, and Ander Herrera, and public criticism of some players. Making tough decisions is what a manager must do, but Mourinho doesn’t always keep it behind closed doors.
Indeed, this trait eventually got Mourinho the sack at Madrid, where the Portuguese coach took on Sergio Ramos and Iker Cassillas – and eventually lost. At Chelsea, the first time around, Mourinho sought increasing control against the oligarch owner – conflict he was never going to win. Back at Stamford Bridge for a second spell, such was the poisonous atmosphere that he built, his players downed tools and the two-time European Cup winner was sacked by December.
In the breakdown at Chelsea 18 months ago, Mourinho took on an increasingly dishevelled look – that of a park drunk howling at the moon. It is surely concerning that Mourinho’s aura recently has the look of a man living on two hours sleep a night. Just perhaps Mourinho is realising how big the United job can be?
The meta concern is that these patterns repeat – conflict with owners, players, the media and supporters. The result is always the same: a failing team, a manager on the edge, and then out the door. It hasn’t happened at United just yet. But there’s that nagging feeling, isn’t there?