Sunday 20 May 2018

Comment - Jose Mourinho needs to win Europa League even more than Manchester United do

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho wants to add to his big-money signing of Romelu Lukaku
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho wants to add to his big-money signing of Romelu Lukaku

Miguel Delaney

As Jose Mourinho evocatively spoke about how he wants to “close the circle” of Manchester United’s club history by winning the Europa League for the first time, it is fitting that the competition itself represents how his career has come full circle - and could yet lead to a new cycle.

That is what the continent’s second-tier trophy has become for the manager, and one other reason why it should be United’s first priority for the remainder of this campaign. It is about more than Champions League qualification, but also about making his debut season a qualified success.

If United fail to claim the Europa League, after all, it would mean that this season’s haul would at best be a League Cup and - at a stretch at this point - a top-four place. That is effectively a Louis van Gaal season - and on the face of it quite underwhelming, especially after all the bombast of preseason and the need for Mourinho to reassert himself after his own crisis of 2015-16.

That is of course not to say that it means he is doing the same type of job as Van Gaal, but the Portuguese understands the importance of winning trophies as a proper sign of progress better than anyone, as well as the culture that they perpetuate at clubs. To win the Europa League would mean winning multiple trophies in one campaign in a way that has marked both United and Mourinho out in the past, and thereby have multiple meanings. It would also offer a single strong answer and justification in the ongoing debate about a disappointing Premier League season.

There’s also no accounting for the “feeling” that such a trophy can bring, of what it can do for a team - let alone bring them back into the Champions League. The distinctive piece of silverware could help relaunch Mourinho’s career in a sense, then, just as it helped first launch it.

Such has been his ubiquity - and, as was put to Celta Vigo manager Eduardo Berizzo, his “mediatique" profile - it is almost impossible to imagine Mourinho now as the game’s bright young thing. Yet that is exactly what he was when he claimed the old Uefa Cup in winning a treble with FC Porto in 2002-03 - his first full season as a manager.

That epic 3-2 victory over Celtic alone also distilled so much that would become uniquely distinctive about the Portuguese. It showed the supremely tactical mind and charm that would win so many trophies and win over so many people, but also the cynicism - both in terms of tactics and how he used the media - that would turn others off him and lead to constant debate over his ultimately pragmatic approach.

When Celtic manager Martin O’Neill complained about the “gamesmanship” of the Porto players, Mourinho’s response was typical: “I'd prefer to ask whether the behaviour of the Celtic players was normal in your country. What Balde did to Deco in front of me could have ended his career... there was a lot of commitment in Celtic's game, commitment, toughness and aggression. I'm tempted to use another word - but I won’t.”

He had left the meaning hanging there, just as his then-highly sophisticated coaching techniques would leave pretty much every other manager in the world for dust over the next six years, to the point he could also leave competitions like the Europa League far behind.

“I don’t want to win the Europa League,” he said on returning to Chelsea in June 2013. “It would be a big disappointment for me. I don’t want my players to feel the Europa League is our competition.”

The main point of winning it this season is of course to get United back into the primary European competition, and it is not Mourinho’s fault that they are actually in it rather than the Champions League, but it is reflective of how disappointing his debut campaign has been that they are forced to rely on it.

There is no getting away from that. Given the managers they are, given the resources available to them, and even given the squads they currently have, both Mourinho and Pep Guardiola should have at least challenged for the title this season. That they have not is under-performance in the league.

It reflects worse on them that Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino have done so rampantly well, one with a Chelsea squad that seemed to have a lot of unsolvable internal problems after finishing 10th, and one at a club like Tottenham Hotspur that really shouldn’t have the financial clout to compete on that level.

It also feeds into the debate about whether Mourinho has suffered the same apparent inevitability as almost every other managerial great, in that his once-sophisticated techniques become surpassed. Conte and Pochettino's players have openly talked about how both work on highly co-ordinated modern attacks in the way that Mourinho just doesn’t. That is the cutting edge of the game right now, and is becoming ever more evolved in the nuances of how coaches co-ordinate those attacks.

The great test for Mourinho, as it has been for any managerial great suddenly not performing to the same level, is to adapt to it and beat it. This is what Alex Ferguson made a virtue of.

Many might fairly claim that this season would look very different had United taken all those missed chances in so many frustrating draws, and not had so many injuries, and there is certainly merit in that view.

There is also merit in the counter-claims: that so many missed chances reflect a deeper problem than bad luck or bad finishing if they happen so frequently, and that there are questions in how certain key players in the United squad have been regularly used and others - like Anthony Martial - somewhat misused. Too often, his first response in many games has been to go defensive, to hold what he has. It has cost him on several occasions, as against Swansea City at the weekend.

These are issues that Mourinho has to figure out, although it cannot be forgotten that another trend of his career has been his sides always being at their best in their second season. By then, he forensically knows how to fix the squad. He has big plans for this summer, especially in the signing of Antoine Griezmann, although some of those are also dependent on Champions League qualification - and thereby winning the Europa League again.

There have been other echoes, however, from that maiden continental victory in 2003. Mourinho first built his reputation - and his managerial aura - with the way Porto players were said to be awed by how he seemed to be able to predict exactly how big games would go. The Portuguese just seemed to have a remarkable insight for understanding exactly how an opposition team played, what they would do, and how to react to it.

It is understood many Manchester United players were similarly wowed by this kind of insight after the recent 2-0 win over Chelsea, when Mourinho both predicted what Conte would do, and pre-emptively reacted accordingly.

Celta Vigo are a side to put some of this to the test in the Europa League semi-final. Manager Eduardo Berizzo has already stated that he won’t change his game for Mourinho or United and he plays exactly the type of modern high-pressing possession football once said to be the opposite ideal to the Portuguese’s. Celta obviously don’t have anything like the resources of United or the players, but much will depend on their form.

For all the talk about how old-fashioned and potentially destructive Mourinho's hardline approach to man-management is, the United squad have responded very well to him and are said to be a hugely happy camp, even if there remains justifiable debate over whether that approach is sustainable after three seasons.

Those are questions for the future. For now, Mourinho has to again win a trophy that was so important to his past.

He has to close the circle, in more ways than one.

Independent News Service

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