Friday 14 December 2018

James Lawton: Mourinho shuffles blame but theory he has lost winning touch must now be taken seriously


Manchester United manager Mourinho. Photo: PA
Manchester United manager Mourinho. Photo: PA

James Lawton

The movie in which Jose Mourinho once announced he was both starring and directing is beginning to resemble one 'Rocky' sequel too far.

He said it in the first rush of his glory when he arrived at Chelsea after his brilliant Champions' League coup for Porto. However, 14 years is quite a long time and much of the script - not to mention the mannerisms - has become, well, wearisome.

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. Photo: PA
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. Photo: PA

One problem is his fight scenes are too frequent and look increasingly bogus. It is him against the football world and the star system with which all coaches must now live.

Instead of dealing with this, and perhaps even acknowledging that the disappointing form of two of the world's most expensive footballers, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez, might just have something to do with his own failure to produce a convincingly coherent team dynamic at Manchester United, Mourinho is beginning to shuffle blame like some hard-pressed card-sharp.

He talks about old triumphs, old titles, as he litters Old Trafford with the implication that a bunch of hugely rewarded players are simply not equal to his demands. But then what are his demands?

So far, they do not appear exactly suffused with the idea that he is hell-bent on preserving United's historic role of producing the highest levels of competitive force and emotion. His commands, it seems, are largely to do with getting the win, however it comes.

They seem a set of week-by-week adjustments shorn of any understanding that managing United, as both Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson proved in turning it into their life work, is not just a top football job but a passion which reaches into the bones.

This week, after the disaster against down-and-out West Brom, Mourinho played his heaviest hand, dropping the plainly troubled Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and retaining Pogba - probably on the strength of his spectacular contribution to the defeat of Manchester City. The coach's short-term benefit was a team performance against Bournemouth that was much less of a parody of the meaning of United.

But the significant test will come in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley tomorrow when he and his Tottenham rival Mauricio Pochettino will seek to preserve their last chances of winning a trophy.

Both men know they are running the risk of thunderous anti-climax to a disappointing season. Mourinho, despite his stockpile of major titles, is no longer immune from the theory that the old touch is something that may have been lost in the accumulation of a vast, self-perpetuating ego.

Pochettino's fear must be that in a season which includes the impressive defeat of Real Madrid, his reputation as a superior team-builder will lapse into that of a nearly man, someone whose motivational power tends to dwindle the closer his team get to success.

The case for the prosecution is not weakened by the announcement that three of his players - Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane - have been voted by their peers into the team of the season - just two fewer than the runaway champions City. Here, surely is the core of a trophy-winning team, a hard-headed, and hearted, defender, a creator of high quality, and a natural-born finisher - and this is not to mention Dele Alli, who woke himself up with almost surreal brilliance the other day.

United provided just one player for the team of the season, the perennially outstanding goalkeeper David De Gea, which brings not a lot of reflected glory to Mourinho.

Pogba's great ability - if anyone apart from Mourinho needed reminding - has been evident enough in the last week or so. His eruption against City was a reminder of why anyone might pay £79m for his services.

And against Bournemouth his escape from the Mourinho guillotine was celebrated with fresh evidence of the skill and poise which made him such a favourite with the supporters of Juventus.

Against Spurs, the chances are that Mourinho will make one of his grand gestures and re-anoint Sanchez as a player who might be worth his wages. Such a decision would still beg the question of why, with such resources at his disposal, it has been necessary for him to wring out of United the guarantee of another vast outlay this summer.

Two years into his assignment, Mourinho is not without more than a handful of candidates who had claims for that team of the year beyond the razor-sharp De Gea.

Sanchez, despite his current malaise, has speed and venom and no little talent. Anthony Martial has shown from time to time superb instinct to strike on goal. Marcus Rashford has a brilliant turn of foot. Jesse Lingard has the drive and wit which has carried him into the England team. Lukaku has a force which is not always latent. Matic is a player of genuine stature.

The problem is that none of them have had the sense of being part of team united in spirit and a clear idea of what they are supposed to be doing from one match to another. No-one is saying that Mourinho is finished, more that he is at a crossroads.

It is no doubt true he could well do with a creative midfielder of the dynamism of the reported candidate, the Brazilian-born Jorginho of Napoli, but he has also suggested he needs a substantially fresh cast upon which to work his magic.

That argument would be more persuasive with rather more reason to believe that sometime soon Mourinho might just resume punching with a little of his old weight.

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