There was once a time when defiance was Jose Mourinho’s biggest strength. Today, that very trait is a sign of how far he is from reality and evolution.
In neurobiology, balance is referred to as the state of perfect equilibrium between alertness, anxiety and inhibition. Once the brain is exposed to enough of anything, the sensory nervous system is attuned to have a static response to similar activities. In modern parlance, we call it getting used to. You do it long enough, it becomes second nature.
After Sir Alex Ferguson left the touchline for the velvet seats of the directors’ box, Manchester United’s stature as a domestic and continental powerhouse has plummeted to levels not known by an entire generation of football fans. Over the last five years, many of the 6 million worldwide Mancs have gotten used to mediocrity on the pitch and tables alike.
So why did the Round of 16 exit at Sevilla’s hands cause such grief to the United faithful? Even if they had made it past the evidently more courageous and enterprising Spaniards, would they, in their current state, survive a Madrid, a Barcelona, a Juventus?
Manchester United are a difficult club to judge; it’s impossible to look at them today without applying the lens of the years gone by. Fans, media and ex-players would hoodwink you into believing that in their heyday, Ferguson’s United team played with eleven centre-forwards, such was their zeal to attack, entertain and not be boring. There seems to be a Manchester United way, and on that unwritten rule-book, there is apparently a clause which promises you success and entertainment everytime you buy a ticket or tune in to watch them.
The knives were out for José as soon as the final whistle rang at Old Trafford, punctuated by a din of boos from the crowd. His post-match press conference, just like the football his team played, wasn’t exactly an experience similar to hearing Neil Gaiman talk or David Gilmour sing. But how many pressers do you leave wanting to share a glass of Pinot Noir with him anyway?
Mourinho didn’t fail to thump his chest and mention in his defiant presser that he’s given the club their only European success in a decade. While that achievement must be given due credit, the cumulative of Saint Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax hardly merits awe. In the Carabao Cup, they had to fend off West Ham, Hull City and Southampton in the last three rounds.
Once you begin to move his achievement aside, there is that incessant talk of heavy expenditure. It’s important to remember that spending big isn’t a luxury available to a select few clubs anymore; multi-billion TV deals have empowered businessmen from all walks of life to invest in football teams and use them like horses on derby-day.
United today are a brand, equally synonymous with pop-culture music videos, social media campaigns and merchandise, as they are with effective football. For the first few, any business would need the biggest names on the planet, and it is football’s great tragedy, that popularity has never bred success, unlike the other way around.
Mourinho’s greatest successes came at Porto, Inter and early-Abramovich Chelsea. All three were places where he was given the luxury to mould his own team and buy players who might not necessarily make eyes twinkle at the first mention. At Manchester United, at the 2018 version of the club, neither him or any other manager, will be given that space.
José has himself been a strong champion for methods of immediate success, but one wonders if this share-market driven ecosystem is a bit too much for him too. The acquisition of Alexis Sanchez made either a lot of sense, or precious little, depending on what you were looking for. His team selections in big games haven’t done the club many favours, but there has to be a portion of the culpability resting on United’s board as well.
The brand of football Mourinho-teams play will probably end up as one of the most written about topics in early 21st century football literature. Discussions about the benefits and pitfalls of his pragmatic approach have taken up many fine evenings, and yet, every once in a while, he gives us more to talk about. The first decade of this century was defined by defensive-minded, cynical football, a style directly up José’s alley. Along with Greece, Italy and AC Milan, Mourinho’s Chelsea, Porto and Inter won big.
The prevalent concern amongst a section of football-watching public is that Mourinho failed to notice the turn of the decade. With Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, the world opened its arms again to attacking, aggressive football. In his time at Real Madrid, José’s tactics made a team comprising of Modric, Ronaldo, Ozil, Alonso, Benzema and Higuain look circumspect at the first sight of challenging opposition.
Is it down to coincidence that the same team, maintaining the core group of players, has won three Champions League titles in the five years since he left? Is it down to coincidence that he has now lost three consecutive Champions League knockout ties on the bounce?
There is little doubt that United are far better now than what José inherited in the summer of 2016. The Europa League victory, if not also the Carabao Cup, must be considered a meaningful achievement, and the team now has a crux of young, talented footballers waiting for a manager who asks them to be brave and enterprising. Failing to do that against oppositions who are leaking goals everywhere else is making a mockery of the footballing acumen and nous Mourinho holds.
All his life, he’s been defiant to the point of ridicule, refusing to change his ways, waging an “us against the world” narrative. It worked when the world outside had the space for it to. A United fan’s biggest fear is that the world has moved on, and their club, so used to being carried by a man who always kept in touch with evolution, is now being led by someone who sits in a bubble. The numbers, records and the sheer scale of the club he’s handling seem all too daunting. Many evenings ago, José sprinted down the touchline at Old Trafford, wearing a black overcoat. It was the beginning of an era. As Vicenzo Montella ran to greet his players, donning a similar jacket, it might have marked the dusk of José Mourinho’s time as an elite manager.