Jose Mourinho has always been a master of setting narratives and defining perceptions. His first ever press conference in English football, self-titling himself The Special One, provided enough evidence of that.
The arrogant declaration of uniqueness and brilliance fitted perfectly into Chelsea’s identity in 2004, of a club emerging to write a new chapter of Premier League history, to break up the established order, to do things differently to the past.
Psychologically, it created an aura of invincibility that seeped into the mindset of not only his players and the club in general, but also Chelsea’s new-found divisional rivals; in his first season, the Blues would lose just one game en route to their first ever Premier League title. Of course, Roman Abramovich’s bottomless purse certainly helped.
Even after the worst ever home defeat of his career on Monday night, Mourinho’s immediate instinct was once again to try and change the narrative. It started with claims that United didn’t lose the game ‘tactically’, evolved into shaping the 3-0 loss as a spiritual moment because of the manner in which supporters applauded the team off the pitch despite the heavy defeat, and then inevitably transcended into a Scouser-esque rant about past glories.
The overarching theme, though, was an attempt to paint a home loss to a divisional rival as something genuinely positive – a cathartic experience for all involved.
And yet, for all of Mourinho’s attempts to control perceptions, arguably the most important one – the idea of unity – has somehow passed him by. Mourinho has every right to be disappointed with the squad he’s been given to enter the season with and as The Independent’s Mark Critchley brilliantly argues, a large portion of the blame for United’s troubling start to the new campaign must be attributed to Ed Woodward.
He knows the kind of managerial beast Mourinho is, the consequential demand for expensive players in their prime, and the furore that manifests when that demand isn’t met – see the summers preceding his two dismissals at Chelsea. Why then, hand Mourinho a new contract in January but refuse to back him in the next transfer window?
Indeed, Mourinho has many grounds for complaint, but it’s the public nature of his protests that United are now dearly paying for. That has been evident in all three of their games this season, when mistakes from centre-halves have resulted in conceded goals after Mourinho made abundantly clear on several occasions clear his current options in that position have left him underwhelmed, but particularly against Tottenham.
Both sides started the game nervously but as the visitors grew into it, United became only more frantic. After the first goal went in, a second followed almost instantaneously – more than anything else, a sign of collective confidence suddenly plummeting.
For all of Mourinho’s justifiable grievances too, counterpart Mauricio Pochettino has found himself in an even less accommodating situation than the Old Trafford boss. £75million spent on new signings, even if they don’t address the biggest deficiencies within the squad, is a whole lot better than nothing at all and the Tottenham manager has even more right to feel promises have been broken by the man above him. The Argentine signed a new contract even more recently than Mourinho, seemingly on the proviso that the north London club would break frugal habits to give him the best chance possible of staging a genuine title bid this season.
Pochettino though, despite Daniel Levy clearly letting him down, has always held the party line to maintain the image of a united Tottenham and never aired his concerns about summer business or the quality of his squad in public. In fact, once the window had closed, Pochettino praised the club for being brave enough to not make pointless additions as a consequence of outside pressures, while tying some of Spurs’ most important players – chiefly Harry Kane – down to long-term contracts.
Tottenham are now one of just four clubs to win all three of their first top flight games, in the process doing a Premier League first in winning at Old Trafford while keeping a clean sheet. United, on the other hand, are yet to put in anything close to what can be described as a convincing 90-minute performance and feel like a club whose toes are hanging over the edge of a full-blown crisis.
“We are a club whose decision was not to sign, [even though] it is the fashion to sign. That maybe looks bad, because of the perception and because of the history of football, but that is our decision – to keep the best players and to keep the squad. It is a brave decision.”
Mauricio Pochettino on Tottenham’s lack of signings, August 2018
Those contrasting fortunes, and indeed contrasting performances in Monday night’s encounter, are no mere coincidence. After all, while Mourinho may feel his squad isn’t good enough for the expectations set upon him, it’s in no way poor enough to lose 3-0 at home to a Tottenham team of relatively similar level that has consistently struggled on the road against key divisional rivals.
Rather than quality, the real difference at Old Trafford was confidence and mindset. Whereas one manager has done everything in his power to build the belief of his players regardless of backroom politics and in spite of summer difficulties, the other has negligently corroded it for the sake of putting pressure to spend on his paymasters and the hope of self-preservation.
Mourinho may be a master of the narrative, but he’s ignored the most important one. Now, that narrative has taken a life of it’s own and the final chapter seems as obvious as it is inevitable – Mourinho getting the axe.