If a visitor came from outer space and looked only at the Premier League table, it would be surprised to learn that Jose Mourinho appears to be teetering on the brink at Manchester United.
The footballing ‘heritage’ as the Portuguese coach put it in his textbook rant last week – by which he appears to have meant only the last six years of Manchester United’s long history – has been one of stagnation or indeed decline.
Since Alex Ferguson left the club until Mourinho took over, United had not finished higher than fourth, and had won only one trophy in that time. The former Chelsea boss won two trophies in his first season.
This year, there’s still a possibility of a third distinct trophy in two years – an FA Cup to add to a League Cup and a Europa League – as well as a second-placed finish this season. Mourinho has taken United to their first Champions League knockout stage in five years, and his team are clearly improving: the squad now is undoubtedly better than it was two years ago and plays better football than the stale lumpiness served up by Louis van Gaal (even though you wouldn’t refer to this brand as anything close to deluxe).
It’s hard to merge that with the clear and indisputable fact that Mourinho is somehow failing at United. It does feel as though he is teetering on the brink, though it’s unclear exactly why – his is the best United team since 2012/13.
Ont of the problems – in my view – is that progress isn’t good enough. Progress is not something that Jose Mourinho has ever promised to deliver, nor is it what he was brought in to achieve. Progress is for the system managers and their pretty patterns, not for Mourinho and his winning pragmatism. The Portuguese manager is always called upon by those who want success and want it now.
In other words, a manager who has two Champions League trophies to his name and who is in charge of a club which has won three, cannot claim victory after two supermarket ‘own brand’ trophies. When you’re supposed to dine on top quality cookies, the value version with chocolate (flavour) chips simply doesn’t cut it.
The other problem is that Jose Mourinho, like Donald Trump, has said too many outspoken things in the digital age to get away with contradicting himself. Whatever the President of the United States says, you can find a contradictory tweet he’s sent quite easily. The same is true of Mourinho quotes: everything is recorded these days. Indeed, their use of English is eerily similar.
When, in 2008, Mourinho referred too Avram Grant as a ‘loser’ for finishing second in the league and losing in the finals of the League Cup and the Champions League, the Israeli coach was presiding over the sort of season Mourinho could only dream of right now. And when it comes to a successful Manchester United season, the only word to sum up victories in the EFL Cup and the Europa League is “almost”.
When your victories come by way of dull, pragmatic football, you can decry pretty patterns as sporting self-pleasure. But it is a myth to point out that nobody remembers second place. “Almost” isn’t nothing if you do it in a memorable way.
That’s why everyone remembers Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle entertainers, and fewer people remember Kenny Dalglish’s dull Blackburn Rovers. If Liverpool are to win nothing under Jurgen Klopp, Mohamed Salah and co will have a warm place in the hearts of many who enjoyed the entertainment they brought. Who will remember Mourinho’s United fondly?
The United manager defended his record in last week’s press conference. He is entitled to do that, and you would expect him to. But what he said mitigated neither his style of play nor the fact that his progress hasn’t ultimately brought any success worth talking about.
To claim this as a successful season would be, to use Mourinho’s own criteria, the philosophy of a loser.