Sunday 21 January 2018

Paul Hayward: United need to add some poetry to their pragmatism

Long balls up to Marouane Fellaini to knock down will not raise them from sixth to first in the Premier League. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters/Livepic
Long balls up to Marouane Fellaini to knock down will not raise them from sixth to first in the Premier League. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters/Livepic

Paul Hayward

If poets had a trade union, or even a press officer, they would be defending themselves today against Jose Mourinho's mockery. Winning trophies, the Manchester United manager said in Stockholm, is for "pragmatists", not dreamers. When did Keats or Shelley ever win the Europa League?

Mourinho's sarcastic dismissal of "poets" in football was based on long-standing resentment of the praise lavished on Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola and others for trying to play creative football.

It was aimed, too, at Ajax, beaten 2-0 on Wednesday night with a side who turned out to be an overawed and outmuscled virtual youth team.

Art for art's sake has always been anathema to Mourinho. Reflecting on United's two trophy wins in 2016-17 (the League Cup was the other), he said: "So the season was the victory of pragmatism - and the people who respect the opponent and try to exploit the opponent's weakness.

"Based on pragmatism and humble principles. Not poets."

Nobody could accuse him of failing to work out what was needed to send Ajax back to their Dutch university without a prize. But then nor could anyone credit Mourinho with producing entertaining football.


Creativity will never matter less, you might argue, than when a Champions League place and a club's self-esteem are on the line. Mourinho was within his rights to pursue victory first and foremost. Equally, United cannot continue playing mechanical football for another season.

Their vaunted global audience will wander off in search of something more exciting (snail racing, perhaps), and others in the Premier League will continue to add attacking zest.

Mourinho inherited a mediocre squad, by United's standards. From this, he has hammered and banged together a side capable of winning two of the four competitions they entered.

In the context of Monday night's terrorist attack in Manchester, too, victory in Stockholm felt like a necessary mission. But long balls up to Marouane Fellaini to knock down will not raise them from sixth to first in the Premier League, or help translate Europa League success into victories over Real Madrid or Juventus: next week's Champions League finalists.

Mourinho's response to Peter Bosz, the Ajax coach, probably featured a lot of eye-rolling and harrumphing. Bosz said: "I have not seen the Ajax I am used to, which means good football and high pressing and being dominant. It was difficult because Manchester United only played long balls and did not play through the middle. They played off second balls. It was a boring game."

The counterpoint is that it was not United's role to stand back and admire a passing side with an average age of 22 years and 282 days: a team who bounced off Mourinho's bigger, older pros, in many of the 50-50 contests.

"We tried to kill their quality and exploit their weaknesses," Mourinho admitted, against the backdrop of United effectively surrendering the end of their league campaign to prioritise this back door route to the Champions League.

"We played intelligently, we did it in a comfortable way. We were much stronger than them. If you are dominant in the air you go long. There are lots of poets in football, but poets don't win many titles. We knew where we were better than them and we exploited their weaknesses."

A triumph of homework, then. A victory of planning. And so meticulous is Mourinho in his defence of pragmatism that he urged his players to raise three fingers on the trophy presentation podium, to denote either the three cups they have won this season (the Community Shield was the dubious third) or United completing the set in Europe: Cup-Winners' Cup, Uefa Cup/Europa League and Champions League.

This is football's most political manager, who even made a point of saying he had left his list of transfer targets with Ed Woodward, the chief executive, before going on holiday.

In other words: any subsequent recruitment failures would not be down to him. At every turn, Mourinho defends his own corner. With that work over for another season, perhaps he might now turn his attention to why United won only 18 of their 38 Premier League games, and finished 24 points behind the champions, Chelsea; why his own supporters feel so unfulfilled by the football they are watching.

In another time, United entered European finals with George Best, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs. They negotiated this one with Fellaini and Chris Smalling. Every United player did his job commendably, and was a credit to a grieving city. But a bit of poetry next season would please Old Trafford. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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