Jose Mourinho’s personality demands that he stands at the centre of every stage. He is the guaranteed headline. When he wins, we see Mourinho’s smile on the back of newspapers and the top of websites. When he loses, we see his anger. This is Jose’s world; every club is his fiefdom.
That is the inevitable result of employing a manager who doesn’t just pride himself on egocentricity, but makes it his raison d’etre. Mourinho obsesses about being the best to the point that second is nothing – you cannot demand adoration when you succeed and yet shy away from the spotlight when things go awry.
Not that Mourinho is afraid to apportion blame or deflect attention, of course. Referees, injuries, other managers, fortune, his own players and fixture schedules are all regular targets for Mourinho in times of strife. If that seems harsh, read the first paragraph again.
When his teams are beaten fair and square, and no excuse comes to hand, the trick is to create a media sensation that will become fish and chip paper for the subsequent few days. See the dressing room kerfuffle post-Manchester City loss that was upgraded to full-blown war by a media that needs eyes on stories and a public increasingly obsessed by football as soap opera.
Unfortunately, media diversion does not work when you drop points at home to a Burnley team that were outclassed by Tottenham in their own stadium just a few days before. Mourinho deserves credit for his half-time changes, but there can be no reasonable excuse for the limp display before the final hurrah. However they got there, this was a dismal result.
If Mourinho does want to mention absences, then James Tarkowski, Chris Wood, Robbie Brady, Stephen Ward and Tom Heaton were all missing for the visitors. A defence of Kevin Long, Charlie Taylor, Ben Mee and Phil Bardsley eventually wilted under pressure, but a point at Old Trafford is a tremendous achievement. Manchester City will now have the opportunity to surge 15 points clear before the final fixtures of 2017. Chelsea, apparently beset by problems, are a point behind.
Last season, despite plenty of pundits picking Manchester United to win the title and Mourinho himself aiming for that goal, the manager changed the mood. That was done partly through lowering expectations via media comment but also through success in cup competitions. What could have been disastrous ended up being perfectly acceptable.
This season, they are out of the title race, eliminated from the League Cup and face a far tougher assault on European success. Mourinho will not (or should not) be allowed to promote second place with any glint of success. That is not how Manchester United created a dynasty.
Again, Mourinho has tried to shift the mood. We are told how nobody could have been expected to compete with Manchester City, as if Manchester United weren’t top of the league at the end of August and level on points with their rivals at the end of September. Since then, United sit fifth in a Premier League table with the same number of points as Burnley. City have soared, but United stumbled too.
We did not expect United to win the league, but we expected a challenge. We expected Jose ‘second season’ Mourinho to demonstrate the repertoire that has served him so well. We expected better than this.
‘Jose Mourinho challenges Manchester United aces to go for Premier League and FA Cup double and a minimum of quarter-finals in Champions League,’ read the headline in late-August, presumably leaked to a favourable media source. Those takes cannot just be erased in hindsight. Mourinho expected better too.
And so we are permitted to criticise a run of results that has included defeat to Manchester City, fortunate victory over Arsenal, hanging on against Watford, Bournemouth and West Brom, losing to Bristol City and drawing against ten-man Leicester and Burnley. Ever since the Liverpool lethargy, instigated by Mourinho anti-ambition, United have struggled. Coincidence?
The problem here is that criticism is hard to take. The dominance of Mourinho’s personality forces his club’s supporters to buy into his hype, into Brand Mourinho, and so accepting criticism of him becomes an admission of weakness.
Dare to find fault, and ‘you just hate Mourinho’ soon follows. The internet has become the natural habitat for the accuser of bias, but normally it is against an entire club. Mourinho is a club of one.
After 20 league matches of last season, Manchester United had earned 39 points. After 20 matches of this season, United have 43 points. If four extra points after buying three new first-team players for a combined £150m represents progress, that progress is not sufficient. In an industry where extreme opinions sell best, this is not a disaster but nor is it success. Rather than black and white, United are a disappointing grey.