Jose Mourinho’s dig at Manchester United during his post-match press conference after Sevilla knocked the Red Devils out of the second round stage of the UEFA Champion league was one that was bound to rankle in the memories of their teeming supporters and the management of the club. And to be honest, only few coaches in world football would make so bold to make the clubs they represent the butt of their ridicule the way Mourinho did on that fateful day.
On a night when carefully selected and placatory words were needed to assuage the bruised feelings of the fans who had just seen their star-studded team beaten by a-little-above-average Sevilla side, Mourinho elected to trade words with fans who had voiced their disapproval of the lackluster performance of their team in both legs of the games against the Spanish club. With the fans shouting – attack , attack, attack- as United sought for an equalizer in the closing minutes of the game ,their message was not lost on Mourinho – his ultra-defensive tactics did not sit well with the fans. At the end of the match Mourinho, brimming with indignation, headed to the conference room to vent his spleen on his widening circle of critics.
Three points found vivid expression in his circumlocutory rant during the said press conference, viz, that Manchester United were no strangers to being knocked out at the second round stage of the Champions League; that he (Mourinho) has mastered-minded United’s exit from UEFA Champions League with two different teams at the same stage of the competition in the past, and that he has won the Champions League competition with two other teams when he had the right personnel at his disposal.
As pundits and fans struggled to come to terms with the umbrage Jose had just dished out to his current employers, it was expected by some observers, this writer inclusive, that he would be pressured to retrieve his veiled and ill-advised insult to the club in one way or another in the coming days. And that was exactly what happened few days later when he fielded questions from journalists in another press conference. This time he conceded that his far-from-perfect understanding of English language may be responsible for some of the wrong constructions sometimes put to most of his statements , and he then followed up by analyzing what he felt was the reason United have not been as successful as the league leaders ,Manchester City.
Mourinho then went ahead and put United’s current struggles down to heritage – perhaps he meant the players he had inherited from his predecessors. Then he followed that up by elaborating on what he considers as ‘heritage’ in football context.
He compared the quality of the players he inherited at United to those Pep Guardiola inherited at Manchester City. In the course of his comparison, he drew the attention of his listeners to the high quality of the Citizens’ players like Nicholas Otamendi, Raheem Sterling, Kevin DeBryune, and Sergio Aguero that Guardiola met at City and contradistinguished them with the mediocre ones he met at United; to reinforce his argument, he spoke about the current form of the players who had exited United in the last two seasons in their current clubs . To underscore the mediocrity of the players he currently has to work with at United, he confessed that some of the victorious Sevilla’s players would walk straight into his starting eleven. At the end of his analysis, Mourinho could only speak of two players in his current United team – Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic – that are worthy of being described as world class or consistent performers.
At the end of the press conference that spanned less than twenty minutes, a smiling Mourinho sauntered out of the room.
Whether the management of Manchester United, who undoubtedly pressured Mourinho into making clarification on his earlier scathing criticism of the club, was satisfied with his explanation is hard to tell, but what remains a fact is that Mourinho failed to mention the contributory role he has played in retarding Manchester United’s attempt to ascend to their former lofty status under the management of Alex Ferguson.
While it is true that United have not always been permanent semi-finalist in the UEFA Champion League, as Mourinho argued, but the club has always played an attractive brand of attacking football. In victories , or draw, or defeats Manchester United almost always played an attacking football. In fact, when Ferguson was at the helm of affairs the team almost always rallied from a losing position to clinch victory during added time. But Mourinho, once again displaying his adept knowledge of sophistry , carefully skirted round the contentious issue of his aesthetically drab and ineffective tactics during the press conference.
The question of tactics has always been the source of recurrent friction between United’s fans and their stubborn tactician. In fact, most United’s fans have been highly critical of the ultra-defensive tactics he employed in crucial matches, and they consider his preference for defensive football very strange when their club boasts a wealth of attacking talents.United’s fans, most of them very knowledgeable in football matters, had sought audience with Mourinho in the past to discuss his tactical approach to matches, but he refused to turn up for such meetings. And his second press conference showed clearly the disdain he has for most of his critics, whom he unblushingly dismissed as idealists or idiots.
Let us return to the very substance of his second press conference. His argument that the average quality of the players he inherited at the club as being the reason United have not returned to winning ways was grossly pith-less and deliberately insincere. While Mourinho was quick to point out the qualities of Matic and Lukaku, he refused to admit that he has also failed in the choice of players he signed for the club in the past two seasons. It remains a fact that the league’s record signing Paul Pogba, who has turned into a big liability to the club, is Mourinho’s signing; the likes of Victor Lindelof, Henrikh Mkhitaryn and Alexis Sanchez, who have all to a large extend failed to perform brilliantly since they joined the club are also his signings. Sanchez, it must be remembered, was a prolific scorer and a supremely gifted player at Arsenal , but currently he always appeared to be out of his depth whenever he playing for United.
Mourinho can attribute United’s poor showing in the last two seasons to the players he inherited, but other stakeholders in the club have rightly identified his tactics as the reason for their club’s struggles during their matches. The legendary Paul Scholes was described by Mourinho as being jealous of the fat salary Paul Pogba earns when he was critical of the French mid-fielder’s overall contribution to the team.
The quality of players Mourinho met at United cannot be the sole reason the club has not returned to winning ways, as he wanted his listeners to believe during his last press conference. Mourinho has the unenviable record of failing dismally when he once had a cast of super-talented players at his disposal. I am instancing his short-lived job at Real Madrid. Despite the galaxy of star players he inherited on arrival at Real Madrid, he was unable to drill them into a team that could conquer the domestic league and the European competitions. Then Madrid’s fans were frustrated with the negative tactics he employed during matches while they watched the rival coach of Barcelona – Pep Guardiola – regale the football world with a brand of soccer that had seen no precedence in the storied past of the enthralling game. Once again, his current situation at Manchester United is eerily similar to what he experienced in his tumultuous period at Real Madrid – his nemesis , Pep Guardiola , has again put his tactical approach in the shade with the breathtaking football Manchester City are playing under his management this season.
Speaking in terms of football tactics, it has to be admitted that, Mourinho has stagnated as the years have passed by. And a lot has happened in the game of football since he won the treble at Inter Milan.The football world has witnessed the emergence of highly effective and diverse tactical innovations in the game from a new era of coaches, ably represented by Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone, Mauricio Pochettino, Luis Enrique etc. But Mourinho has stuck doggedly to his obsolete tactics – operating the self-same style that won him many trophies at the early stage of his managerial career. And his partiality for an all-inclusive defensive game that relies on counter-attack to score goals has proven in recent years to be largely ineffective and highly unproductive in this period that is rife with tactical innovations.
Today, the mystique around Mourinho is gradually fading, and very soon his tactical limitation will be exposed for all to see. One thing is certain; his darks arts won’t win him admirers at United. His passion for trading verbal wars with fellow managers and his knack for diverting criticisms from himself by spinning yarns of being the victim of imaginary enemies from rival clubs, the FA, the referees won’t save him his job this time around, just as he has already found out at Real Madrid.
So the pertinent question to ask is : how did Mourinho succeed in bluffing his way into managing elite clubs in the face of his glaring inadequacies as a coach? It is simply because of the near magical feat he performed at the outset of his coaching career, a feat that still lingers in most memories.
Mourinho past achievements is the reason many highly placed persons in the football world still think he is one of the most tactically astute managers in the world of football, and they cannot be blamed for that signal error of perception. Only few people would not be seduced by his earlier achievements in his career during which he won many trophies despite the odds that were stacked against him. And the hype around Mourinho has stood him in good stead, earning him high profile managerial positions after his exploits at Inter Milan, but his performance at Real Madrid and his current project in Manchester United are finally directing the searchlight upon his tactical limitations, which a few people have always known. At the end of his stay at United, it will be obvious to all that his tactical knowledge of the game is grossly inadequate to cope with the changing and challenging demands of modern football.
Granted, no one can be too sure when the management of Manchester United will grow tired of Mourinho’s lame excuses for the dismal performances of his team in the field of play, but what events have shown since he came to United is that his robust training drills, his predilection for defensive play, his intolerance for constructive criticism, his highhanded man-management, and his wanton disregard of football fans’ feelings are counter-productive to the club’s progress. As for Manchester United’s management, who are assaying to buy their way back to success, they must be reminded that it would be hard for any club to dominate the Barclays Premier League the way they did in the more prosperous day of Alex Ferguson. And if the management of the club still labours under the illusion that Jose Mourinho wields a magic wand that will magically transform their beloved club to elite position in global football , the events that have played out so far with him as United’s manager are enough to rid them of such illusion.