Tuesday 21 May 2019

Turning dramatic tragedy into crisis - The house of Mourinho is emptying and darkening

‘The very self-belief which enabled Jose Mourinho to rise to the top of his profession now makes him his own worst enemy’. Photo: Getty
‘The very self-belief which enabled Jose Mourinho to rise to the top of his profession now makes him his own worst enemy’. Photo: Getty
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

In Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex the city of Thebes is beset by omens of disaster. "A rust consumes the buds and fruits of the earth; the herds are sick; children die unborn, and labour is vain. The god of plague and pyre raids like detestable lightning through the city, and all the house of Kadmos is laid waste, and all emptied, and all darkened."

The auguries of doom at Old Trafford, defeat at West Ham, scoreless tedium against Valencia, a manager-disrespecting social media post liked by Antonio Valencia, a gag on Pogba, fierce criticisms by past players, a falling-out with the local police might not be quite as spectacular but they're unmistakable. The house of Mourinho is emptying and darkening.

The United manager will hardly pluck out his eyes in response but there's an undeniably tragic aspect to the story of his stint in Manchester. Here were a club and a manager who seemed made for each other. Mourinho's old aura of omnipotence might have dissipated slightly but he remained one of the best managers in the world. The job at United was one he'd always seemed to covet.

Now all lies in ruins. The Greeks had an explanation for what caused such reversals of fortune. They called it hubris. Hubris was a kind of overweening pride which flouted normal behaviour and challenged the gods, prompting them to take revenge. Every great tragic hero is essentially a man who said, "I am The Special One."

What makes these heroes truly tragic is that they are undone not so much by outside events as by a flaw within their own character. Often the very thing which made them powerful in the first place is at the root of their downfall.

The tragic hero can't quite believe what is happening to him. He's also unable to see his own contribution to his downfall. Instead he regards himself as the blameless victim of some cosmic unfairness. By the time self-knowledge arrives, it's too late.

The parallels with Mourinho are obvious. The very self-belief which enabled him to rise to the top of his profession now makes him his own worst enemy. The explanation must lie elsewhere, in the faults of others. So there's no need to change what you're doing because you're not doing anything wrong. This is a recipe for decline and disaster.

What's remarkable about the current incarnation of Mourinho is how easily he seems to crumble under pressure. Other leading managers, Jurgen Klopp being a prime example, have had to endure times in the Premier League when things weren't going to plan. They've had to knuckle down, take the criticism and try to redress matters.

Mourinho seems to lack that kind of resilience. He's become the football equivalent of the man who storms out of a room because he Can't Be Doing With This. It was not always like this with him. Unfairly cast aside by Chelsea, he rescued his reputation through a process of reinvention, revival and redemption at Inter Milan. When he eventually retires from management, I suspect Inter's Champions League victory will be regarded as his finest hour. Few others could have engineered such a resurrection.

Reviving United's fortunes should be easier than winning a Champions League with Inter yet the task seems far beyond Mourinho. His spell at Real Madrid is like his version of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, a gruelling foreign campaign after which the great general would never really be the same force again. In Spain, he came to believe there was something unfair about the way Barcelona kept thwarting his ambitions. It seems to have become an idée fixe with Mourinho.

Hearing him blame the West Ham defeat on bad refereeing decisions or suggesting the lack of a police escort might have contributed to United's lassitude on Tuesday night, you're confronted by a man losing touch with reality. Because if others are really to blame for United's results as often as their manager claims, the only explanation can be some vast anti-Mourinho conspiracy.

Tragic heroes were masters at making rods for their own back. So is Mourinho. His desire to always be the smartest guy in the room at press conferences was a petty but harmless foible when things were going well. Now it heaps more pressure on him. No-one enjoyed more rubbing it in to their opponents, Arsene Wenger being a particular butt of the jokes. Now that things are going badly for United Mourinho seems tormented by the idea that others might be taking the same pleasure in his misfortune that he did in theirs.

Exacerbating it all is the presence of Paul Pogba, the most expensive nemesis in history. There is an awful irony about the fact that the player who was supposed to be the key piece in the honour-winning jigsaw is instead the one who's done most to bring things down around Mourinho's ears. Most frustrating for manager, team-mates and fans is that in every single match there are a couple of moments, an effortless sweeping crossfield pass, a surge past a couple of opponents, a sublime flick or change of feet which show what the Frenchman is capable of. They're usually followed by the trademark lapse into sulky anonymity. Pogba's problem is that though his is a great talent, it is also an immature one.

He built his reputation on a dominant team in Serie A, a league considerably weaker than those in Spain and England. His impressive World Cup owed a lot to the presence beside him of N'Golo Kanté, the finest of midfield anchor men and the perfect lieutenant. You suspect that Paris Saint-Germain, where the domestic league is a foregone conclusion which offers great scope for coasting and showboating, would be a dream destination for the player.

It's clear both United and Mourinho would be better off had Paul Pogba never signed for the club. That's some return on €105m. Mourinho could hardly have expected it. Neither could he reasonably have expected that Alexis Sanchez, scorer of 24 goals for Arsenal in the Premier League two seasons ago, would score three in 23 games for United. At the time, securing Sanchez looked a masterful piece of business, a crafty wiping of Guardiola's eye. Instead the Chilean has been an unmitigated disaster.

Mourinho is mocked for his dependence on and praise of Marouane Fellaini. But you can see his point, he at least knows the Belgian is giving it his best shot. And between knock-downs and a general injection of chaos into the opposition penalty area, Fellaini has probably dug United out of more holes than most of his more skilful team-mates.

But ultimately the buck stops with Mourinho rather than Pogba. He has made matters much worse by his willingness to criticise players publicly, something which seems to proceed from pure peevishness. After Liverpool's defeat by Napoli last week when Jurgen Klopp made a couple of mild criticisms of Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino, the suspicion was that he did so to take the spotlight off the currently struggling Mo Salah. Were Salah enduring a similar run at United, it's likely Mourinho would already be questioning his desire and turning a drama into a crisis.

Back in Thebes, the king's brother-in-law Creon journeys to the oracle in Delphi to find out what's causing the city's problems. He returns with the news that, "The god commands us to expel from the land of Thebes an old defilement we are sheltering. It is a deathly thing, beyond cure. We must not let it feed upon us longer." Spoiler Alert: It turns out that Oedipus himself is the problem. The play ends with him cast from the throne and wandering in the wilderness. He is the Special One no longer.

Yet the king's departure does not make things any easier for Thebes. More war and suffering and tragedy lies ahead. When the Trojan War rolls round, the kingdom is such a peripheral presence it's not even mentioned in The Iliad. Thebes has failed to qualify for the big European matches. Its old rivals have left it behind.

In the end, dramatic tragedy is all about a fall from a great height. It may be tough on the protagonists but nothing makes more compelling viewing. Who can take their eyes off United at the moment?

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