Sunday 21 July 2019

Paul Hayward: Jose Mourinho's hollow efforts to avoid blame don’t wash

Mourinho managing himself instead of his misfiring team in theatre of the absurd

Some observers believe that Jose Mourinho was playing to the Old Trafford gallery during Monday’s defeat by Spurs. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP
Some observers believe that Jose Mourinho was playing to the Old Trafford gallery during Monday’s defeat by Spurs. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP

Paul Hayward

The soul of a club is often said to be found in one sacred part of the ground. At Manchester United, it was always the Stretford End, where Jose Mourinho stopped after Monday night's 3-0 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur to enlist the Old Trafford hardcore against his enemies.

As deflection tactics go, standing in front of that hallowed area to the right of the tunnel and applauding United's followers for their encouragement is from the desperation section of a manager's survival manual.

Not that Old Trafford's congregation was undeserving of praise. Mourinho's long ovation, though, was part of a wider effort to unite United's fans against the pundits, and probably his own board, who denied him reinforcements to the disastrously porous central defence he used against Spurs.

Rising share price, commercial deals coming out of their ears, demoralised and sub-standard centre-backs, melodramatic manager, clunky team.

This seemed a fair summary of United's status the morning after Mourinho tried all sorts of diversionary tricks to protect his own position.


Yes, defending his "own position" has become performance art, the theatre of the absurd. Mourinho is no longer managing Manchester United, once a beacon in the English game. He is managing the play of his own life, and everyone can see straight through it.

The three deflections he tried were:

1: Appealing to the fans over the heads of the owners and the media.

2: Obsessing over Tottenham's second goal, as if the first of Lucas Moura's two strikes had distorted the true narrative.

3: The three-fingered gesture that preceded him saying he had won more Premier League titles than the "other 19" managers put together. How he must have fretted for Arsene Wenger to retire for him to wheel that one out.

All in all, this post-match carnival of self-exoneration and finger-pointing completely overshadowed a fine win by Spurs, and obscured the unmistakable sense that Mauricio Pochettino is now a better manager, less egocentric, more attuned to the times and more willing to actually coach his players, to improve them.

While Mourinho scowls and prowls, Pochettino goes about the business of making his players better and his team tougher and more united, even with no additions from the summer transfer window.

Pep Guardiola is often the most unflattering comparison for Mourinho to have to endure, but Pochettino is now up there too.

With his array of subject-changing tactics, United's manager probably hoped he could reduce Tottenham's celebration to a sideshow.

Mourinho's actual tactical breakdown of the game did make some sense.

United played well in the first half and missed chances. But his use of Ander Herrera as a third centre-back was painful.

Herrera had no idea how to defend or even where to be when Spurs were launching their best attacks.

And, as for poor Phil Jones, he was beaten in about six different ways by Harry Kane for Tottenham's opening goal.

United's defensive record last season was good, but Jones and Smalling have regressed and Victor Lindelof looks psychologically shattered by his time at United.

So United's fans are starting to look like Mourinho's last line of defence, but they will not be building barricades to defend him.

The Stretford End clap-athon was one of several attempts Mourinho made to win over the crowd.

On television he tried to isolate his critics by claiming, "all our fans don't read papers, all our fans don't watch television."

What he meant was - our loyal followers take no notice of the negativity around us. If only.

Most of the disgruntlement stems from spectators who have seen their club mutate into a deal-making factory with a poor recruitment record and no identity on the field of play.

An image forms of Mourinho watching too much news analysis in his hotel suite and telling himself that all he has to do to survive is manage the message, rather than the team.

He has not become a 'bad' manager in the conventional sense. In fact, you could argue he is no longer really a football manager at all.

If he were, fewer players would have stagnated on his watch and he would be building on last season's second-place finish, instead of starting fresh fights and losing two of his first three games.

Mourinho is managing himself, his own story, with an increasing measure of displeasure and contempt.

The facial expression of United chief executive Ed Woodward after the Spurs game was especially grim.

United have sweated the brand so heavily they stand in a perspiration puddle of their own making.

But where it really matters, Mourinho chooses from mid-table centre-backs and is forced by sheer weight of money to keep using Alexis Sanchez, a luxury acquisition who has made a negligible impact relative to his salary.

United's record under Mourinho is not calamitous. A League Cup and a Europa League title in his first season were followed by an admittedly vain pursuit of City in the league last season.

Mourinho is right to think the board turned against his rebuilding plan over the summer, but the board are also justified to some extent in questioning his judgement in the market - as well as his miserable demeanour and low opinion of some of these United players. Mourinho's compulsive need to self-dramatise can no longer be called 'football management'. It's now just hollow spectacle.

The Stretford End, which has observed the supreme professionalism of Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson, will not be rushing to help Mourinho stay trapped in his persecution complex. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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