Patience has been Jose Mourinho’s buzzword since his arrival at Old Trafford for his first day of work on July 4.
“We need time,” he said on the eve of the season with regards to the group as a whole. “I cannot tell you that we are going to start the season at 100 miles per hour. I cannot say that. It is very difficult. We have to improve the players and especially to improve the principles of how we play as a team. It’s difficult to change – and from the mental point of view it is not easy to adapt.” He repeated these pleas for patience in separate interviews on Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly, Luke Shaw and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
This is familiar ground for Mourinho, a manager who repeatedly asks publicly for expectations to fall short of the hyperbolic, before privately demanding that his players commit entirely to achieving such ‘unrealistic’ ambitions. One of the more memorable quotes of the Portuguese’s first season back in England was the “little horse” description of his Chelsea side in comparison to Liverpool and Manchester City.
It’s a logical PR strategy, of course. By underplaying the quality of his side and thus over-exaggerating the strength of the opposition, Mourinho is trying to pull down the ceiling on his own performance to a manageable level. Fail and he told you they would; succeed and he overcame the odds.
In any case, Mourinho has the evidence to back up his words. Second-season success is one of the hallmarks of Mourinho’s career. He won the league title at Porto and Internazionale in his first season, but it was the second campaign that brought European glory and historic trebles. At both Real Madrid and back at Chelsea, the first season was preparation for a title assault. In both cases, the league title, and an air of domestic dominance, followed the next year.
Yet there is a second pattern in Mourinho’s managerial career which makes those demands for patience harder to maintain. Mourinho’s last five appointments (Chelsea x 2, Inter, Real Madrid and Manchester United) have all come during the season break. In a sport in which mid-season managerial sackings are becoming more commonplace, this pattern (that Mourinho and Pep Guardiola both share) is highly unusual. Mourinho’s latest appointment date in that run was at Chelsea on June 3, 2013, still more than two months before the season began.
Psychologically, that is important. While Jurgen Klopp – appointed in October 2015 – was given a free pass until the end of the season despite effectively only matching – in results terms at least – the previous performance of Brendan Rodgers, Mourinho struggles to persuade that he can be afforded such a luxury. A full pre-season with the squad, significant summer investment on new players and a lengthy opportunity to stamp his personality on the team do not sit comfortably with protestations that any immediate failure can be written off. Those four aforementioned players (Shaw, Bailly, Mkhitaryan and Pogba) cost almost £180m in transfer fees alone. Unfortunately, money does affect patience.
Mourinho might have claimed that “it would be easier to get 20 new players and start with them from zero than to get a squad that was previously with a top manager but with different ideas than mine”, but that’s not a luxury that is afforded at Old Trafford. Simply not being the last guy or the guy before that does give Mourinho some banked goodwill, but only success will truly convince supporters of his suitability for the role of (finally) taking United forward.
In that mission, Mourinho’s start has been far from ideal. United are collecting points and scoring goals at a rate of less than two per game, the rough benchmark for all clubs looking to mount title challenges. Going into Monday evening’s game they sit in seventh, behind Everton, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool. I’m mischievous enough to point out that David Moyes was sacked with United in seventh, behind Everton, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool. There are far more differences than similarities between the two, but this has not been the beginning that many anticipated Mourinho making on the way to creating an Old Trafford dynasty.
The comparison between the effervescent attacking football that Jurgen Klopp is honing and the fluidity that Mourinho is still trying to exact could not be greater. United were hugely improved during their victory against a dismal Leicester defence, but that is the exception to their early-season rule. Five Liverpool players have scored three league goals or more this season already, but only Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford have done so for United; only six United players did so in the whole of last season. Liverpool’s defensive issues are renowned, but United’s only clean sheet in all competitions since August came against Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League. The possible absence of Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum will cause Klopp a headache, but Mourinho too has his own midfield troubles.
Monday’s opponents therefore come at an inopportune time for Mourinho. The message from the Liverpool camp is that they do not fear United, and there is truth in that PR bluster. Since winning at Anfield in January, United have won four of their ten away league games. Defeats have come at Watford, West Ham, Tottenham, Sunderland and West Brom.
This has become the game that Mourinho dare not lose. Should Klopp’s Liverpool play with the swagger to which we are becoming increasingly accustomed and defeat United, it would send a message to supporters of both teams that Mourinho could really do without. Back would come talk of crisis, with United five points off the top four after only eight games. It’s one thing the neighbours being noisy, but another entirely when they invite the rabble from up the road to the all-night rave.
The assumption is that this fixture fits Mourinho’s own managerial strengths. In his (regularly bizarre) book on the Portuguese, Rob Beasley spends three pages describing why Mourinho’s teams are wrongly defined as defensive, but this is certainly a manager at his best when fighting his corner. Inter’s 1-0 defeat in the Camp Nou remains one of the proudest moments of his career.
Pressure on the referee, sitting deep, using Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat as the outlet, smiling in his press conference after achieving a 0-0 draw; this has the hallmarks of classic Mourinho. Joel Matip and Gary Neville have already alluded to the potential for ‘direct’ football from United.
Yet that strategy contains plenty of risk. Before Tottenham offered a Premier League masterclass in how to overwhelm Guardiola’s Manchester City, United failed with their own approach of reaction over proaction. Should Mourinho utilise the same plan against Liverpool with similar results, questions about that plan will be repeated at a louder volume. Is it time to misquote Einstein on insanity again?
One letter in Friday’s Mailbox declared this to be one of the biggest Liverpool vs Manchester United games in years, and the argument is persuasive. Both clubs have managers tasked with arresting a period of failure, although far longer in Liverpool’s case. Both managers have been backed in the transfer market. This is the first line in a new chapter of this rivalry, with both managers given the chance to set the tone.
Amid the fervent atmosphere at Anfield on Monday, Mourinho’s pleas for patience will be lost in the noise. Defeats to Liverpool aren’t necessarily season-defining for Manchester United, but they are certainly mood-changing. Mourinho might be more than happy to take a 0-0 draw down the M62 but, with the home side’s struggles in defence and free-scoring attack, that feels like the least likely result of all.