Wednesday 20 September 2017

Mourinho off mark but stony reaction a reminder of task still ahead

Jose Mourinho: huge task still ahead. Photo credit: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Jose Mourinho: huge task still ahead. Photo credit: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Paul Hayward

No prizes for guessing why Jose Mourinho was underwhelmed by his first trophy at Manchester United.

The performance was ragged, the prize modest for a double Champions League-winning manager. He was in no rush to encourage the idea that a scraped win over Southampton in a League Cup final should be the limit of United's ambitions.

This was classic reverse psychology by the man whose appointment last May was announced thus by Ed Woodward, United's chief executive: "Jose Mourinho is quite simply the best manager in the game today."

Mourinho had spent much of the build-up to this final extolling the virtues of the English cups - even lecturing fellow foreign managers about their importance.

Yet, in the moment of victory, he looked as if he had won a bottle of Blue Nun in the office raffle.

But while Louis van Gaal's successor plays political games with his players, the rest of us can at least acknowledge United's recovery under his management.

There will be those who say Van Gaal is still ahead of Mourinho by virtue of his FA Cup win last May, hours before he was sacked and Mourinho was appointed in his place.

For Van Gaal, the FA Cup was a farewell present; for Mourinho, the League Cup ought to be a mere trinket on the road to a renaissance.

Nobody would guarantee it. United are still painfully dependent on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored two of their three goals, including the winner in the 87th minute, with a powerful thrust of his head.

Mourinho and Zlatan are quite a pair. One of the new manager's first acts was to summon the old Swedish nobleman to Manchester in the face of grumbling about his age.

Was a then 34-year-old giant really the shape of United's future?

Mourinho never thinks dreamily. He knew United needed an inspirational figure to set the standard for a squad increasingly accustomed to seeing managers come and go (and one, it must be said, not especially animated or determined).

DISMISS

To dismiss this 3-2 victory over Southampton as a mere bagatelle ignores where United were before Mourinho swept in.

Yes, they were FA Cup winners, but they were also an unbalanced squad weighed down by transfer market punts - the consequences of which Mourinho is still addressing.

In those first few weeks and months he seemed sour and conflict-addicted.

Sounding like an exiled general who missed his family, he even moaned about his personal life in Manchester. Some thought he had entered a kind of terminal middle-age alienation from the thing he used to be so good at, and was about to wreck the joint again, as he had at Chelsea.

'What's eating Jose?' was a common theme in essays about his first autumn at Old Trafford.

What was eating him, probably, was the culture problem in the squad: the lack of edge and dynamism.

Seen from that low starting point, United's improved league form and this first trophy nine months into his reign assume greater significance.

You would not sell your car to watch this United side. They have none of the zip or fizz of Alex Ferguson's teams.

But Mourinho has restored something that went missing: a bottom-line standard of how a Manchester United XI are expected to perform; a basic level of ambition.

United fell below that minimum performance level here at Wembley, which is why Mourinho declined to rejoice.

He knew Southampton had brought greater spirit to the occasion. He will be aggrieved at how easily Chris Smalling was turned for the excellent Manolo Gabbiadini's second goal, and by Paul Pogba's inability to impose himself on the game. He will have been upset generally by United's defending and disjointed attacking. He may even have been a touch embarrassed to be leaving London with the trophy. Without 'Zlatan', the cup would be bobbing its way to Southampton.

So in those circumstances Mourinho was obliged to show displeasure, though some will feel he took it a bit too far.

United are in an FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea as well as the Europa League round of 16, with FC Rostov.

They desperately need a return to the Champions League, in which they finished third in a group containing Wolfsburg, PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Moscow last season under Van Gaal.

They are currently sixth in the Premier League - but only two points behind Arsenal in fourth.

So while hardly transformational, this League Cup victory at least established a point about Mourinho's management, and where United ought to be heading.

"It's not easy to win titles, it's not easy to win titles so many times, it's not easy to cope with that pressure that I put myself under with my career," Mourinho said.

So, along with the self-regard there is internal strain: a standard he has to live by. There is still much to do.

Pogba's immense transfer fee remains emblematic of United's overspending, and the core of United players capable of matching Chelsea or Manchester City is still too small, as this game intimated.

It is rare for Mourinho to confront such wholesale rebuilding. At Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea again he started from a higher base of talent.

But this was a step, for one of the few managers capable of correcting all the mistakes United have made. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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