Comment: Jose Mourinho has gone out of fashion in a game in thrall to speed, risk and free expression
Jose Mourinho was not keen to celebrate finishing second in the Premier League and Manchester United ’s fans have lost all sense of what to be happy and cross about.
As Watford head to Old Trafford this weekend, United’s followers are in two camps: the realists who care only about upward movement and romantics who think the team need to be adventurous in line with tradition. To call this group “dreamers” would insult them. They see themselves as guardians of the noble aims laid down by Busby and Ferguson.
Simply, United are currently nine points and four positions better off than last season. Whoop-de-frickin-do, the sceptics will say, after soporific performances against Brighton and West Ham (since Ferguson retired in 2013, United have posted a joint-high 19 0-0 draws). From the opposing corner, Mourinho’s supporters say he is on one of his long marches to power. Month by month, they claim, he is correcting the errors of the David Moyes and Louis van Gaal years, rewriting the culture so that United can be masters of English football again.
The first complication there is the 19-point gap to Manchester City, who are unlikely to regress next season. Liverpool’s rise is another looming threat. But there is another, deeper question, that goes to the heart of Mourinho’s style of play. He let it be known this week that he doubts whether some of his players are going to “make it” at United, which is no place for passengers. This tallies with what we see on the pitch. Some, such as Anthony Martial, lack conviction and are not consistently threatening. Is that evidence of weakness in their characters though or are they just disengaged because the play is often so dull.
A strategic manager who distrusts art for art’s sake, Mourinho is getting his rear-end kicked aesthetically by Man City. Understandably, he is not looking to be in a beauty contest with the other team in Manchester. He does however have to live with the accusation that City, Liverpool and Spurs have taken the game somewhere he is not prepared to go: to a world of speed and risk and free expression. Maybe in 10 years fashion’s wheel will come back round to Mourinho’s conservatism and cunning. For now though he is the head of a one-man religion.
Second place in the league and an FA Cup win would constitute a good campaign, arguably better than last year’s Europa League and League Cup victories. Yet Paul Pogba has lost his way, Alexis Sánchez has been (mostly) a waste of a high salary and Marcus Rashford and Martial have been up and down. Mostly, the brief they are given doesn’t lend itself to entertaining football. Gifted players look functional.
So Mourinho can cast his eye over this United squad and plan expulsions and upgrades. He can give up on fringe players who seem to just walk around the pitch. He can bring new ones in, even after a net spend this season of £160m. He may even hang around long enough to impose his ideas in every area. Where there is room for doubt is whether new players would also be stifled and United’s fans would just keep on yawning.
Kudos to Klopp ... but 1966 is old hat
Jürgen Klopp’s address to the Football Writers’ Association was a lesson in charm and openness to other Premier League clubs who look at the outside world through a peephole. His praise for Rhian Brewster for confronting racism on the pitch should resonate across the game.
Liverpool’s manager also did some of Gareth Southgate’s work when trying to wrench the English around to a positive view of the country’s World Cup squad, which is named next week.
Klopp told journalists at Mo Salah’s coronation as footballer of the year. “Maybe reduce the pressure a notch or two - that is where you can help, I think. Maybe take the numbers 1966 off your computer keyboards for the summer and let this team write their own history and memories.”
This is a fair request, in the sense that patriotism should not outweigh objectivity in the reporting of England’s games in Russia. The mention of ‘1966’ was striking. To the outside world, England may still seem obsessed with that summer’s day 52 years ago. But I can assure Klopp that spell is broken. Nowadays 1966 is a museum number, typed only to foster realism.
Conte cannot escape prime blame for Chelsea's fall
Chelsea’s fall from champions to fifth-placed scramblers this weekend has one prime cause: the moaning and negativity of Antonio Conte, the manager, who seemed to become disaffected the moment his side failed to add last season’s FA Cup to their title win.
There were legitimate grievances, no doubt, in Conte’s dealings with those who control Chelsea’s transfers. But the constant message from the coaching zone was that the team lacked depth to compete on four fronts. In essence, Conte was telling his team that they were not good enough to consolidate the championship win of May 2017. This fatalism was bound to affect the players, who must have wondered whether Conte was putting his own career plans before the needs of the team. Not cool.
Spurs are a success
Put me in the camp of those who believe Spurs have had a good season, despite end-of-season stumbles. The measure is the thrilling wins over Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester United. To abandon hope on the grounds that Tottenham are doomed to fall short is mumbo jumbo.
Another touch of class
Wagner versus Wenger is an escalator moment at Huddersfield. Up goes David Wagner, to safety, down goes Arsène Wenger, to departures. Despite the hurt, Wenger has handled his abdication beautifully. To adapt Macbeth, nothing in his Arsenal life became him like the leaving of it. May there be happy days ahead.