Sunday 26 May 2019

Comment: Jose Mourinho can continue pretending but he isn't fooling anybody

‘By refusing to discuss whether United can win the Premier League, Jose Mourinho is tacitly admitting they cannot. It is a passive aggressive way of shifting the blame’. Photo: Victor Decolongon
‘By refusing to discuss whether United can win the Premier League, Jose Mourinho is tacitly admitting they cannot. It is a passive aggressive way of shifting the blame’. Photo: Victor Decolongon

Luke Edwards

Manchester United remain the biggest club in England, the richest football team in the world and a sporting brand as mighty as any on the global stage, so how much longer can everyone continue to pretend they do not need to win the Premier League?

This is a conversation Jose Mourinho does not want to have, a line of questioning he simply will not entertain on United's pre-season tour of the United States.

Ask the Portuguese whether his side can win the Premier League next year and Mourinho will not even bother to make eye contact, let alone offer an answer.

In the main, as United start to zigzag their way across the US on their way back to England, Mourinho has the expression of a man who bought a first-class train ticket, but can only get a seat on the floor outside the one working toilet onboard.

We may be hurtling towards the start of a new season, but Mourinho is a man who seems tempted to pull the emergency brake; to halt any sense of optimism or excitement. He is a manager alternating between self-preservation and damage limitation, albeit while occasionally flicking a switch that fires hostile shots at his employers.

By refusing to discuss whether United can win the Premier League, Mourinho is tacitly admitting they cannot. It is a passive aggressive way of shifting the blame.

Such an approach is definitely not the United way. After all, they are the most successful team in the Premier League era, but there is a historical feel to such a boast.

They are in danger of meandering down the same path Liverpool did after they had dominated English football in the 1970s and '80s.

It is 28 years since Liverpool won the league, something United have not tired of reminding them. The prospect of enduring a similar barren run should be abhorrent, but for now supporters seem, in the main, to agree with Mourinho. There is more of a desire for United to play with style, than with league-winning substance.

In finishing second behind Manchester City, and regardless of the fact the title race was over as a meaningful contest before spring, Mourinho secured United's best placing since they last won the Premier League, in Alex Ferguson's final season, in 2013.

Perhaps a little surprisingly, most United supporters appear willing to finish second again, as long as they win one of the other trophies on offer and play a brand of football more in keeping with the romantic idea of what a United team should look like.

"I think Mourinho's approval rating has fallen after ending the season without a trophy," said Andy Mitten, editor of the United We Stand fanzine.

"But the majority, probably 60 per cent of those fans who actually go to games, are still behind him and we want him to succeed. I don't think last season was a disaster, finishing second, because we could recognise how good Manchester City were. Can we overturn a 19-point deficit? That's a huge task and I don't think many United fans expect us to win the league this season.

"What they do want is to see us play a more attacking style of football and the one thing that cannot be tolerated is another capitulation in the Champions League. The atmosphere when we beat Liverpool at Old Trafford was as good as it has been in years, but the defeat by Sevilla a few days later ruined the season.

"Going away to Sevilla in the first leg and seeing them have 20, 21, 22 shots on goal and we played [Romelu] Lukaku up front on his own to get a 0-0 draw, I felt uncomfortable. But all we needed to do was win the second leg at home, so to lose it was a massive setback. It damaged Mourinho, that was the game that changed things.

"That won't be tolerated again. If United are not going to win the Premier League, they have to do well in Europe and by well, I mean reaching the latter stages of the knockout phase."

There is also a demand for a more attractive style of football, to see United teams attack rather than contain and counter. There were some good results last season, some good games and performances, but what we would really like to see is United playing on the front foot more.

"That is what we would really like to see. Not winning the league is one thing, but playing bad, negative football, that is what has to improve under Mourinho."

That is a view shared by one of the club's former players, with Paul Ince suggesting that Mourinho will not last another season if he does not alter his defensive mindset.

"Man United fans have been brought up on a tradition of playing the game in a certain way," said Ince. "United is a club that needs a team playing with style and panache. The fans want to see the team beating teams by three and four goals, and if they lose occasionally, they want to see them going down fighting.

"What they have got with Mourinho is very different. To be fair to him, this is a tough job, as he went in there after Louis van Gaal, who took United backwards, and he has got to try and build them up to Manchester City levels again. That is not easy to do overnight, but it's the job he has to do.

"To finish second is great, but Man United fans will lose patience with him very quickly. The noisy neighbours across the road are not helping as they are playing football from another planet and it doesn't help that Liverpool and Tottenham are playing with a bit of style as well. These teams are playing attacking, front-foot football, creating chance after chance.

"What you see with United is a team trying not to lose most of the time, and once Chelsea went 1-0 ahead in the FA Cup final, Mourinho's team didn't really look like getting back into the game. That isn't good enough for this club, it's as simple as that. These fans don't want to see their team having one shot every 45 minutes. They will demand more and if they don't get it, they will turn on the manager."

For the moment, Mourinho still has time on his side, but the goodwill is unlikely to last if Manchester United continue to fall short of title-winning credentials.


The Left Wing: Leinster's succession plan, Munster's missing piece and the art of contract negotiations

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport