The swift shift into the international break has allowed the dust to settle, but we’re still amid the aftermath of what was unquestionably the most explosive week of Jose Mourinho’s time in charge at Manchester United.
The trigger was that shock 2-1 defeat to Sevilla in the Champions League, in which the tepid performance was far more alarming than the result or United’s elimination from Europe’s top tournament. Validating an infuriating evening at Old Trafford, Mourinho unexpectedly delved into a twelve-minute rant in his next press conference, questioning the ‘heritage’ of a club with the most trophies in English football and six pieces of silverware from their European campaigns.
“In seven years, with four different managers, once not qualify for Europe, twice out in the group phase and the best was the quarter-final. This is football heritage.”
The Brighton game too, caused controversy. United were once again unconvincing despite controlling possession and eventually winning the FA Cup quarter-final clash by two goals, and Mourinho responded by subbing off Luke Shaw at half-time before publicly criticising not only the England international but also captain Antonio Valencia after the final whistle – claiming he would have hooked off both if he was in a position to do so. Having often expressed his concerns over Shaw’s development in public during their one-and-a-half seasons together at Old Trafford, some have branded Mourinho’s treatment of the left-back as bullying.
“I had to change one and I chose Luke because at least Antonio defensively was capable of good positioning. Luke, in the first half, every time they came in his corridor, the cross came in and a dangerous situation was coming. I was not happy with his performance.”
Attacking your own club’s history and pedigree, and then publicly criticising your captain and one of the youngest players in the team undoubtedly qualify as two of management’s greatest cardinal sins. The tacit convention is that all scrutiny of players happens behind closed doors, away from the hyperbolic media, while questioning a club’s history – especially one as incredibly successful as Manchester United’s – is a sure-fire way to turn fans against you. As Louis van Gaal can testify, even trophies can’t spare managers from the sack at Old Trafford if there’s swelling negativity amongst the fan-base.
And yet, for all the inward accusations the Portuguese has made, for all the insinuations that he’s gravely unhappy with the performances of his players – making another telling statement by dropping Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba last weekend – and for how poor United have been during their last two games, we’re not really talking about any of that. Once again, after arguably United’s most humbling European performance of the post-Ferguson era, the limelight is firmly set on Mourinho. Rather than dissecting those performances, we’re all too busy asking whether the Special One is quite so special anymore.
But we shouldn’t really be all that surprised, because smokescreens have been a recurring tactic throughout his career – one that Arsenal’s talismanic playmaker Mesut Ozil, who Transfermarkt value at £45million, even openly discussed in his latest biography, Gunning for Greatness, having worked with the United gaffer at Real Madrid.
According to the German World Cup winner, what many have perceived as bullying, arrogance, stubbornness and self-serving madness to protect his own reputation, is actually a hugely selfless, sacrificial act.
Mourinho moves the focus from the team onto himself; that moves the pressure and the scrutiny along with it, and leaves the manager as the lightening rod while the players overcome disappointment – in this instance being a Champions League tie where several key players knew they could and should have done much better.
Even by his own standards though, this current smokescreen is particularly exceptional and awesome, not least because it’s a massive double-bluff.
After all, while Mourinho’s delivery may have been excessive and in some senses aggressive, he’s correct that United’s struggles in Europe aren’t limited to his tenure alone – in fact, his impeccable record in the Champions League suggests there are more systematic issues at play.
Likewise, although plenty of pundits have come out in defence of Luke Shaw, it’s undoubtedly true that he’s failed to live up to anywhere near his own potential at Old Trafford, and Mourinho is hardly the first manager to publicly criticise the young full-back.
In many ways then, accusations of Mourinho taking a few more steps along a downward spiral, the manner in which speculation over whether his ‘special’ managerial powers are on the wane has become a common talking point in the media in recent years, and the whole narrative of the Portuguese being a relentlessly divisive, paranoid, self-serving figure is exactly what the United boss wants to hear.
The more people talk about him rather than the team, the happier he is – and the fact they’re doing so even when he’s singling out players who are unquestionably underperforming is only evidence of how paradoxically effective the strategy has proved to be.
No doubt, amongst the fan base and pundits, Mourinho has made some huge enemies over the last few weeks. But just as Ozil did at Real Madrid, the players who have been protected by their manager’s self-created, media-magnetising frenzy will appreciate that for taking the edge off a difficult period at Old Trafford.