Jose Mourinho has made a concerted effort to reference Manchester United’s Premier League position in relation to that of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur since the critics rounded on him and his team for the nature of their Champions League exit.
That abject 2-1 last-16 defeat at the hands of Sevilla saw his pragmatic tactics called into question yet again and Mourinho was clearly stung by the criticism of his stodgy Old Trafford side.
Specifically, how United’s approach is in such stark contrast to the methods employed by Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino, both operating on a substantially lower budget than Mourinho has at his disposal, to boot.
Mourinho will always reach for the cold hard facts; the league table and silverware, in order to preserve his own reputation.
But, given the often joyless slog it has been during both his campaigns at United, given the style of football at times and given the way United’s progress has often been punctured by poor results against lesser teams, it is surely fair to ask for a better blend of style and substance.
It was argued that United enjoyed a 2016/17 better season than Tottenham, on the basis that having the League Cup and Europa League to show for their efforts is more important than Spurs’ continued improvement of players, genuine title challenge and exciting style of play.
There is clearly merit in that but Mourinho’s bludgeoning style of hoovering up trophies comes with a lingering sense of emptyness. United want trophies – silverware has always been the currency at Old Trafford – but a more modern, proactive approach to getting them would sate the fans who long to get excited about watching their side again.
In the prolonged absence of the sense that the club is motoring in the right direction and building something – which is what Liverpool definitely have and Tottenham largely possess also – Mourinho will continue to feel like yesterday’s man forced to justify his record in the media.
He has to tell fans that United are moving in the right direction because it doesn’t always feel that way.
Which brings us onto Mourinho’s adversary this weekend, Arsene Wenger. Arsenal went nine years without a trophy between 2005 and 2014 and Gunners fans craved silverware.
The consensus was that as soon as Wenger rediscovered how to stock the Arsenal trophy cabinet again, the fans would get off his back; but that proved not to be the case as the voices of dissent became ever louder before eventually forcing him out of the Emirates.
The constant sense of stagnation, the continued unwillingness to address weaknesses and watching on as other rivals raced by all became too much for the Gunners fanbase to bear.
Wenger has won three of the last four FA Cups – at least two of which saved his job – but he grew to realise that this was no longer enough. Arsenal fans wanted to feel like they were moving forward and it became increasingly clear that was never going to happen under the Frenchman.
That’s why they forced him out. On the face of it, his record of consistent Champions League qualification (until this term) and finishing the season with a trophy represents success in the modern era, but the feeling around the club was often toxic due to the same old failings and the refusal to change.
All of this isn’t to devalue trophies; they remain the ultimate measure of a team or a player’s success. But fans want to feel a part of something more in the modern era.
Ending the season with a day out and a trophy is sometimes not enough to make up for months of substandard quality on the pitch, especially when clubs are charging extortionate prices for the privilege of watching it.
Fans want to see progress at their club that stretches beyond the trophy cabinet.
Arsenal have not been that team under Wenger for many a year. For now, United fans will tolerate the functional football that has secured two trophies and a chance to win another but Mourinho needs more to deliver what their fans truly demand; style mixed with substance and a degree of excitement and unpredictability.
Liverpool’s unexpected crusade to – surely – the final of the Champions League is all the more enjoyable because of its thrilling, high-tempo nature. There is a feeling in the air at Anfield which, in the eyes of a fan, is more joyful and special to be a part of than holding a three-point gap over third with a game in hand could ever be.
Wenger exits the Emirates as yesterday’s man who clung on too long, who was unable to adapt. Unless Mourinho modernises, he faces the same fate eventually.