As someone who once followed a victory away at a title rival by dismissing the prospects of his Chelsea side – the “little horse that needs milk” – Jose Mourinho has often proven himself as adept at managing expectations as he is at managing football clubs.
“I don’t agree we are title contenders,” he said in February 2014. A 1-0 win at the Etihad Stadium put Chelsea level on points with Manchester City in third, two points and two places behind leaders Arsenal with 14 games remaining. Yet their hopes were extinguished by the very man expected to foster and nurture them.
Mourinho did offer a morsel of optimism to fans who had anticipated far grander proclamations. “Maybe next season we can race,” he said, and race they did. Chelsea cantered to Premier League glory, and the Portuguese maintained his wonderful achievement of winning the league title in his second season at each of his five clubs since joining Porto in 2002.
It is a record that, even as early as November, is in jeopardy. Another 1-0 Chelsea victory over a title rival, this time Mourinho’s United, helped City open an eight-point gap over their neighbours heading into the latest international break. Catching a side that has won 19 of their last 21 games in all competitions is an unenviable task, but it is not an impossible one.
Talk of dissension has already been gradually disseminated through the media. As David de Gea was left stranded by Alvaro Morata’s perfectly placed second-half header on Sunday, only the Stamford Bridge faithful drowned out the sound of a shifting narrative. United started the season in excellent form, but this is suddenly a squad that needs improving after recent struggles, a group of players and a manager that never had a chance of competing with City’s dominance. Even after the 0-0 draw against Liverpool in October, when questions over Mourinho’s style intensified, reports emerged that he was considering leaving Old Trafford due to a lack of ‘funding’.
Pep Guardiola’s side were always favourites for the Premier League title, but it was expected to be a close race. It still might be. But as we approach the half-way point, Mourinho is pointing at his trainers and complaining that they did not cost enough, rather than trying to give chase.
The January transfer window is 54 days and 13 games away, yet attention has already turned to Mourinho’s winter plans. The latest reports claim he will have to endure the ignominy of selling players before he adds to a squad he has already spent over £290million assembling.
It is important to remember that United started the season on a largely level playing field. The shortcomings in a squad that had finished sixth in the Premier League but won two trophies had been addressed. Mourinho signed the centre-forward, the central midfielder and the central defender he wanted, and accepted the inability to deliver his fourth demand: a winger. Only three clubs spent more in the summer, but only six recouped less in player sales than their £9.7m.
Mourinho cannot claim he was not content. “I think every one of us is equipped to win the title,” he said in August. “I think Tottenham, without any spending, are equipped to win. Man City, they are equipped. Arsenal the same. Liverpool are equipped. Chelsea are the champions, lost some players but bought some players.
“It is difficult to say who is better equipped. I think the competition can be better than ever.”
In that same interview, Mourinho assessed his own club’s chances. “I have a good group and a football club much better equipped,” he said. “We are much better organised in the areas that support the first-team squad. We are much better organised at every level. So we will go for it this season. We are going to try to win the title.”
Yet three months later, the PR machine is already shaping this as the season where City were the unstoppable force and United were simply one of 19 other teams who never stood a chance. As with the painful U-turn the media conducted almost exactly a year ago, the foundations have again been laid for possible failure.
Mourinho himself described this as a marathon with six equal runners in August; it is difficult to stomach the concept of a one-horse race in November.