Wednesday 23 October 2019

Comment: As Jose Mourinho's crisis worsens, one important factor is in danger of being overlooked

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

James Lawton

In the deepening crisis of Jose Mourinho, as he flails in pursuit of his old trademark credibility, one important factor is in danger of being overlooked.

There is a basic challenge facing any manager of Manchester United and it goes beyond how many matches are won, how many trophies you glean. It is a way of being, of how you see yourself and those you represent. Matt Busby founded it, gloriously and with no little personal agony and Alex Ferguson gave it long, brilliant and unrelenting expression until the very moment he left office.

Paul Pogba. Photo: REUTERS/David Klein
Paul Pogba. Photo: REUTERS/David Klein

And now, these next few days before United attempt to redeem an abject defeat at Brighton against Spurs at Old Trafford on Monday night, the task, and the current remoteness of its achievement, is the most legitimate stick with which to beat Mourinho.

The charge is not so much that his failure to galvanise a talented and extremely expensive squad has been dismaying in its stale, ego-ridden contortions of blame-passing but a fear that he doesn't truly understand the basic blood and guts (and spirit) of his latest assignment.

It is not to preserve the myths and the legends created by the very best of his work in the past but to show that he truly grasps that he is no longer the central figure in his own show, or, as he once put it so unforgettably, movie, but the increasingly doubted guardian of one of the greatest, most emotional stories football has ever known.

He will not soothe the escalating concerns with daily asides of dubious significance and some considerable malice. If it is not too late, he must show - at the very least - a little deference to the legacy he inherited, one which proved too heavy for two experienced and, in their different ways, successful managers, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.

In the latest rancorous exchanges between Mourinho and Paul Pogba's agent and such indomitable United performers as Paul Scholes and Paul Ince, and the clearest signs of dwindling empathy between the manager and the dressing room, it has been impossible to forget an incident at the old training ground during the Busby regime.

He got up from his office desk to take a glance at the training session unfolding on the field below. There was an argument between the trainer and a player. The player was waving his arms, making clear his reluctance to follow instructions.

Busby, immaculately suited and booted, strode across the muddy field and spoke briefly with the player. He said: "This is Manchester United. It is not how we do it." And then, without another word, he walked back to his desk.

It is true, of course, the world of football has changed almost beyond recognition, making that kind of authority much harder to impose. Yet some things don't change and at Old Trafford many of the fundamentals hadn't until the day Ferguson retired.

That, surprisingly when you consider the current disarray, was a mere five years ago. Under Ferguson, quite as much as Busby, it would have been impossible to imagine the kind of festering which has come to the Mourinho-Pogba relationship. The issue would have been settled, one way or another, as even such luminaries as David Beckham and Roy Keane would find out.

From almost the beginning, the record signing of the superbly gifted young French star of serial Juventus Serie A wins, one kind of knife or another has been in. And in the meantime, Pogba produced some sublime moments in France's World Cup win.

The Brighton performance must be made to seem nothing more catastrophic than a random, and potentially watershed, aberration. The requirement has as much to do with the holding of boardroom nerve - and the corporate treasurer of the American owners - as Mourinho's managerial lifeblood.

Not since his first glory has he ever been in quite such a corner. At Porto, he was the young and invincible conqueror, racing manically down the Old Trafford touchline on the way to Champions League final victory over Monaco in Gelsenkirchen in 2004.

At Chelsea, first time around, he was the double title winner and putative movie star of his own imagination.

At Inter Milan, he was the knowing man of all seasons and situations, winning a national title in a third country and his second Champions League title after blunting the brilliance of Barcelona and then overcoming Bayern Munich in the Bernabeu.

At Real, he fought and chided but still managed a fourth title on foreign soil against a Barcelona at the apex of its power. At Chelsea, second time round, he thrived for a season, then fell.

The question which nags, perhaps even Mourinho when he retires to his hotel suite, is whether a great and once unique talent is all played out?

Has he burned away too much of it with his quarrels, his provocations, his searing, self-serving judgements, as in the one in which he described Arsene Wenger as a serial loser, so that now when he reaches down into his armoury he finds his most effective weapons in too short supply?

A pessimistic Mourinho would not have to look hard for someone who is getting the maximum out of his players while simultaneously upholding club traditions.

On Monday, Mauricio Pochettino and his Tottenham team arrive at Old Trafford for a game which, last October, prompted Mourinho to celebrate a 1-0 victory by putting his finger to his lips in a gesture signifying that his critics should stay silent.

Anything less than another victory, however, and the rumblings will become deafening.

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