Mourinho’s side ends the year on 44 points, having played 21 games, with the team on track to finish on 79 points in May. The Reds are a long way behind Manchester City, but it is unfair to judge Mourinho as a comparative failure given the record-breaking performance by Pep Guardiola’s team. Guardiola has set a new level of excellence, re-defined what is possible in the English game, and is on course to finish on more than 100 points. The existing record is held by Mourinho during his first spell at Chelsea, with his team finishing on 95 points in 2005.
"There is no doubt that Mourinho has benefitted from the lowest expectations in a quarter of a century."
Remove City from the equation, and Mourinho has also failed to finish the year as the best of the rest, despite each of Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal falling below expected standards. This is not just a tale of Mourinho being overwhelmingly out-performed by his nemesis Guardiola.
What the 2017/18 season does represent, though, is progress. There is no doubt that Mourinho has benefitted, following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, from the lowest expectations in a quarter of a century. United’s structure was centred far too heavily on the Scotsman, and by Ferguson’s standards the last four seasons have been a disaster. Mourinho certainly escaped widespread criticism despite finishing last season in sixth with just 69 points. It is widely accepted that Mourinho inherited a side requiring an overhaul, and numerous players in need of re-programming.
During the first half of the season Mourinho’s side produce victories in many fixtures that it could only draw in the previous campaign. His team has scored more and conceded less than the same stage of the season last term, and currently has the second best goal difference in the division.
Mourinho also gained credit by winning two competitions last season, especially the Europa League which secured Champions League qualification. Had Mourinho suffered defeat in that Stockholm final, his first season would have been deemed a failure. Cup success enabled the manager to achieve par, which was good enough following the mind-numbing dreariness of Louis van Gaal’s possession-based side.
Despite United’s December blip, Mourinho has cultivated a side that typically beats inferior opposition. Qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League has been achieved with minimal fuss, and defeat to Bristol City in the Carabao Cup was disappointing, but not season-defining.
The area in which Mourinho is justifiably criticised is his record against the so-called Premier League big six, particularly away from home. Despite United’s recent win at the Emirates, which came with more than a touch of good fortune and outstanding goalkeeping, Mourinho’s ultra-defensive approach has contributed to losses against Manchester City and Chelsea, while the team could only eek out an unambitious draw at Anfield. This is perhaps the most concerning sign of decline for a manager who has so often masterminded big results on the big occasions.
While Mourinho has improved the side, turning United into a functional and durable team with an inkling of team spirit, the perception is that he should be closer to City. Mourinho found success at Porto, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Inter Milan. To date he has presided over 95 games at United, winning 57, drawing 23, and losing 15. This equates to a win percentage of 60 per cent, which is below his career average of 65.3 per cent. Granted, he is being judged against his own élite standards.
It is also a fair observation that Mourinho has failed to change his approach since he first arrived in England in 2004, cheekily claiming to be the ‘Special One’. He has built similar sides: a consistent spine, defensive stability, a high work rate, supplemented by outstanding attacking players possessing pace and power. He has focused primarily on exploiting the weaknesses and mistakes of his opponents, as opposed to playing in any defined style. Style has never been a priority. If anything Mourinho, sneers at the “poets,” who he feels should be prioritising competitiveness over entertainment.
Yet, his record against the top six is decidedly poor at United and unacceptable for a club of global stature. This failing is particularly stark for the lack of ambition. While supporters remain behind Mourinho, the seeds of discontent have already been sewn. Despite the obvious talent within the squad, players are not encouraged to express themselves, take risks, or dominate the opposition. Since United’s draw against Liverpool, the side has been bereft of confidence.
Much of this is down to Mourinho’s personality, where risk aversion dominates. If players do not conform to his disciplined approach, they are not part of the side. Yet, with City setting new standards in a climate where players hold the licence to express flair and creativity, it may be necessary for Mourinho to tweak his approach. Not least because that margins at the highest level are fine, with five sides below City on a similar level. Instead, the gap to City has widened this season, and Mourinho’s justification is rings a little hollow.
“You think the club can put £600 million and buy six players for £100 million each?” he asked after United’s draw with Leicester.
“The club cannot do that. I cannot expect the club to do that. You can see how the market is, especially with the top teams. I remember my times from my first Chelsea period where everyone was saying money was making the difference. So, I don’t think it’s changed, I think money makes the difference.
“Sometimes if you don’t have that financial profile of club where there are no limits and the only thing that matters is to get the best, there is only one way which is patience, calm, and time.”
Indeed, Guardiola has spent more on players over the same period that Mourinho has been in charge: £416 million to the Portuguese’s £314 million, according to Transfermarkt.
Not everyone buys the theory. Paul Scholes recently claimed that Mourinho has “whatever money he wants” and that the main problem “is spending it wisely.”
Wages is the other, possibly more significant metric. Based on figures published by the University of Salford’s Centre for Sports Business, City’s annual wage bill was £225 million last season, with United’s at £221 million, and Chelsea on £218 million. This puts United roughly on a par with other top sides.
Mourinho has enjoyed mixed success with the players he has acquired in any case. Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelöf, Nemanja Matic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku have joined over the past 18 months, each at significant expense and with a view on instant impact. None have fully justified the transfer fees or wages paid.
Bailly is injury prone, Lindelöf has taken time to settle, and Matic has been steady but expensive for a near 30-year-old at £40 million, while Mkhitaryan looks destined for a hasty exit. Neither Lukaku nor Pogba have truly lived up to their spectacular fees. There are even caveats about Ibrahimovic, who joined on a free transfer, but requires tactical accommodation and is destined to spend much of this season on the treatment table.
Another line Mourinho has been keen to impress during his largely joyless press conferences is that he inherited a squad lacking in quality. It is a highly debatable point. After all, the United squad has more than one international calibre player for every position in the side and is bursting with youth in Axel Tuanzebe, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Luke Shaw, Scott McTominay, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
It is a matter of debate, but at the start of the season many pundits placed the United and City squads on a similar level, although that now seems far from the case.
"Mourinho has personally benefitted from the state in which he inherited the club, with fans frustrated and bored with the football on offer under Van Gaal."
Another criticism that Mourinho faces is his reluctance to develop and promote talent from the academy. He has done little to dispel this observation during his time with the club. Mourinho has consistently asked Rashford and Martial to job-share, although each was already established in the first team. Meanwhile, Lingard has only just become a regular starter despite Mkhitaryan’s atrocious form.
Mourinho can take credit for improving many of his defenders, notably Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, although he has effectively discarded Shaw and Daley Blind. He has failed to extract the most from, or find a defined role, for Pogba, and several of his players are clearly struggling for form and confidence, most prominently Lukaku, Martial and Ander Herrera.
The Mourinho approach is also an issue. He has been publicly critical of both players and his team, questioning the team’s attitude and desire more than once, most recently after defeat in the Carabao Cup, but also after United lost at Huddersfield Town. The manager appears to absolve himself of any blame, even thought it is his responsibility to breed the right attitude and mentality.
The approach may have motivated some, but it has precipitated a decline in others. It is a commonly perceived wisdom that modern players typically do not respond well to the hard-line approach, although it has brought Mourinho success throughout his career. Either way, he doesn’t appear to be getting the best out of many of the players at his disposal.
Despite the criticisms, there has been progress under Mourinho. He has personally benefitted from the state in which he inherited the club, with fans typically frustrated and bored with the football on offer under Van Gaal. The club also knew what it was getting into with Mourinho, so there should be no surprise in how he has gone about his business. Yet, there is also an inescapable observation that Mourinho is behind the curve considering the resources at his disposal.
He will get time to continue the project. Whether the manager is willing the make the changes that time and context demands is another question. Throughout his career, Mourinho has been a master of smoke and mirrors, diverting attention away from his own failings. This time there’s no escape: if United fails to secure any trophies this season, if Mourinho cannot deliver a winning team, then there’s not much left on offer. The specialness may have gone.