“I think it [the criticism] is my fault, because people are used to my teams getting good results and winning titles. Other people have more time than I have. Other people have different standards than I have and that’s not a problem for me at all. We are going to lose matches, that’s obvious, and I can imagine we are going to have even more criticism than we have now” – Jose Mourinho.
Say what you like about Manchester United’s manager, but he can at least predict the short-term future. After the draw at Liverpool and victory in Benfica, Mourinho was publicly perplexed by the criticism of a team that had not yet suffered a loss in any competition. In West Yorkshire on Saturday, they stared defeat square in the face.
Mourinho’s midweek assessment of his own reputation was partially correct. There is no doubt that the manager’s reputation as a winner, his past success, puts a certain pressure upon his current and future performance and thus holds him to more stringent account than others. We expect Mourinho to win because he has always won. Jobs may have ended in ignominy, but none have been without a lasting moment of true triumph.
Yet there is another obvious reason for Mourinho to receive stronger criticism than his rivals: the manner of his management. It’s not just the big-match pragmatism, sucking the joy out of highly-anticipated matches. It’s not just his propensity to publicly hang his players out to dry. It’s not just him scapegoating members of staff so that his club is forced to settle on cases of constructive dismissal. It’s not just his one-eyedness over his own use of excuses (see injuries this week). It’s not just his general moodiness when things aren’t going his way. But when a manager displays all of those in combination, we expect the end to justify the distasteful means.
If Mourinho teams are successful, we can (except in one example on that aforementioned list) accept the bad behaviour as part of the whole package; without one you don’t get the other. It therefore figures that if his teams fall short, that behaviour will be judged more harshly in hindsight.
Mourinho’s first success after arriving in England was defined by a siege mentality that made it Chelsea against the world. Creating a barrier to the outside, there was a distrust of anything that painted Mourinho or his club in a negative light. Every player was asked to buy into his vision. His management style was a college of the mind – players were made to think better and feel better, and thus play better.
One of the changes in Mourinho over the decade since his first Chelsea exit is that the mask tends to slip, and his siege mentality occasionally shifts from ‘my club against the world’ to ‘me against the world’. He is now perfectly prepared to publicly criticise key players, whereas before doing so would have been to accept his own culpability. In the world of 2005 Mourinho, a key player under-performing would only reflect badly on the manager. They rarely did.
After defeat at Huddersfield, Mourinho chose the opposite strategy. He accused Manchester United’s players of lacking passion and having a poor attitude, claiming that he was astonished by Ander Herrera’s post-match interview. For what it’s worth, Herrera had merely repeated the message of his manager.
Yet if Mourinho was upset by United’s passive football, he must accept his own role in that passiveness. Perhaps it’s because, after six straight victories in all competitions, the manager instructed his team not to attack a vulnerable Liverpool team who were ripe for picking off. Or are we to believe the two laboured and lethargic displays since then are coincidental?
Criticising the players also overlooks Mourinho’s role in the result itself. No manager can account for an individual mistake like Victor Lindelof’s for the second Huddersfield goal, but perhaps freezing the Swede out of first-team action for the first two months of the season ruined his confidence?
Having watched a dire first half, what is the job of a manager if not to alter the course of the game? Antonio Conte changed the match with substitutions against Watford on Saturday. Marco Silva inspired his Watford team against Arsenal with a half-time call to arms, as revealed by his players. Manchester United had two shots on target in the 62 minutes after conceding the first goal.
If this all sounds hypercritical, it is. These are the margins that Mourinho and Manchester United are working within. Manchester City have dropped two points in their first nine matches, and have already established a five-point lead at the top. Pep Guardiola’s team have conceded the fewest shots on target (14) and had the most (74). We have witnessed few obvious weaknesses.
Having appointed modern football’s ultimate winner and allowed him to spend £295m in 15 months, Manchester United expect to win. Disaster could easily be averted with success in other competitions, particularly the Champions League, but 2017/18 will be viewed internally as a failure if they don’t win the Premier League title. Last season, the pre-season second favourites finished sixth. This season, given Mourinho’s famous second season syndrome, the pre-season second favourites cannot allow City to romp away.
If the obvious retort is that ‘second favourites finish second’ is hardly a damning indictment, you are overlooking Mourinho’s determination to prove himself a bigger success in Manchester than Guardiola. For all the accusations of chequebook manager against them, both Mourinho and Guardiola pride themselves on improving players. Right now, one is doing that far more effectively than the other.
For all the smoke and mirrors that Mourinho’s public persona attempts to deploy, there is a certain transparency to his behaviour. When he starts blaming his own players, you know Mourinho is truly feeling the pressure. These are the moments when his collective siege mentality becomes a circle of one, and we’re experiencing them more often. Manchester United face Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City in their next seven league games. This was not the time for a wobble.