Time to Cut José Mourinho Some Slack, or Does he Just Deserve the Flak?

Time to Cut José Mourinho Some Slack, or Does he Just Deserve the Flak?

Saturday, 1 December, 2018 - 07:00
Marouane Fellaini celebrates scoring with Mourinho. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA
London - Paul Wilson
José Mourinho is in trouble again, as you might have heard. What has he done this time? Well, just from Manchester United’s game against Young Boys on Tuesday night the charges are as follows:

1: Suggesting some of his players might prefer to watch on television if they are unable to handle the Old Trafford pressure. 2: Selecting the most expensive bench in United history, with big-money buys Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku among the substitutes and top earner Alexis Sánchez not even in the squad. 3: Turning his back and shaking his head at an early miss by Marcus Rashford, an action that drew instant criticism from Gary Lineker of the strikers’ union. 4: Trashing a drinks container when his side finally took the lead in injury time, thereby guaranteeing much of the ensuing coverage focused on him. 5: Pointing out his sparkling record of success in Europe at the end of the game, inevitably inviting criticism that he is living on past glories.

That is quite a rap sheet from the 24 hours or so surrounding a distinctly average Champions League group game, but how much of it is fair? Having a go at Mourinho has practically become a national obsession, and admittedly the manager seems to go out of his way to court controversy at times, but could it possibly be the case that he deserves some slack after getting United to the knockout stage with a game to spare?

What is certainly demonstrable is that all those fears the United board originally had about Mourinho making himself the story rather than showcasing the talents of his players have come true with bells on. United are a Mourinho club now; the manager appears unable to operate in any other way – he simply does not do humble club servant or wise yet detached observer. That said, and perhaps because of a spiky personality, he is frequently treated differently to other managers.

He was surely entitled to express dismay or disappointment at the Rashford miss, for example. It came after five minutes, when a goal could have changed the whole mood of the evening, and even Lineker would have to agree that Rashford should have at least hit the target.

As always with Mourinho there was a suspicion of playing to the gallery, because a camera is always going to be there, though as reactions go it was hardly as wild as Jürgen Klopp’s touchline histrionics when something goes wrong or as clinical as Pep Guardiola hooking Raheem Sterling after a miss too many. Not every manager is able to keep their emotions in check in the manner of Rafael Benítez or Mauricio Pochettino, and there is no reason why everyone should.

Supporters generally prefer managers to be as caught up in the heat of the moment as they are – look at the criticism Sven-Göran Eriksson and Steve McClaren received for passivity on the England touchline – and Mourinho can probably be forgiven for failing to beam with approval at Rashford’s lack of composure.

Hurling a crate of bottles to the ground at the end should theoretically come under the same heading, except this was clearly a more manufactured moment. Mourinho was inviting the watching world to look at him and it duly did, and though the world most likely judged him to be silly and childish, the manager may have had his reasons for his actions.

The alternative would have been to look at his team, which as Paul Scholes said with his usual lack of warmth, had been “awful”. Mourinho says he is no longer interested in Scholes’s opinions, which is fair enough, yet the BT pundit’s view that United’s performance reminded him of the one against Sevilla last season happened to be valid. Playing like this, United are surely on course for another quick exit once the knockout stage commences, and but for Mourinho’s diversionary tactics Scholes’s verdict might have formed the basis of post-match coverage.

While it might be imagined that the likelihood of facing Barcelona or Bayern Munich in the first knockout round prompted Mourinho to get his excuses in early and remind everyone of his qualification record, it should not be forgotten that United went to Juventus and won this month. They are not quite the lost cause Scholes always seems to be suggesting, it is just that they often play better away from home and some of their players – Rashford and Jesse Lingard included – seem to perform with much more assurance and freedom in an England shirt.

This is a problem that must be down to the manager. If Mourinho has been trying to imbue his players with confidence this season he has gone an odd way about it, whether complaining his central defenders are not good enough, moaning to Hristo Stoichkov that his younger players lack maturity and focus – surely an arrestable offence for a Manchester United coach – or leaving out his most expensive and experienced acquisitions then complaining that the team do not score enough goals.

United are seventh in the Premier League and will find it difficult on current form to break into the top four. Failure to secure a Champions League berth would probably mean the end for Mourinho, first because that is what he is supposed to be good at, second because there has been no real progression over the last three years. United have not grown as Liverpool or Tottenham have grown and they are nowhere near as consistent as Chelsea or Arsenal, let alone Manchester City.

In terms of moulding a side, turning United back into a force in the land, Mourinho is struggling in spite of all the money spent on transfers and wages. Some talented players are struggling too, perhaps because the direction from above is so unclear. Ultimately the buck stops with him.

Mourinho built his career on decisiveness and positivity, with an almost uncanny ability to transmit those qualities to his players. He has been a genius in his time but if his players are presently hesitant and confused it can only be a reflection of a manager who now seems to be better at identifying what he doesn’t like rather than what he actually wants.

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