What’s going on with José Mourinho?
It shouldn’t be anything to do with the results, which everything in his managerial history suggests are the most important thing.
Last weekend, Manchester United were frustrated into a 2-1 loss at Huddersfield Town, who out-Mourinho’d Mourinho, but it wasn’t the end of the world because it’s October and there are 29 games left to play. Also, United sit second on the Premier League table with a plus-18 goal differential, and 20 points out of a possible 27. In fact, Laurent Depoitre and Aaron Mooy’s first-half strikes in last Saturday’s long, sad trombone slide were two of only four league goals scored against United so far this season. There are also the seven clean sheets to point to, counting a boring—as in single-note, lifeless, borderline-unwatchable, no-one’s-idea-of-entertaining—scoreless draw against Liverpool at Anfield two weeks ago. After that match, Mourinho got a glint in his eye about PSG, the club his son is rather fond of, and one of a precious few Huge Clubs Mourinho hasn’t managed yet. (Can’t you just imagine him on the touchline, half-zip under his topcoat, trying to get Neymar to track back on defense?)
United’s first real test of a two-month-old season might have gone differently, if Jürgen Klopp had just given them a chance, Mourinho also said after the match. “For me, the second half was a game of chess but my opponent didn’t open the door for me to win the game,” he said.
Apparently no one told him that the door was off the hinges: Liverpool had given up five and scored none against United’s crosstown rivals in September—two coming before Sadio Mané raked some of Ederson’s face off with his boot—and then they would ship four to Tottenham the next weekend. But save for one just-a-step-too-slow Romelu Lukaku shot in the first half, Mourinho’s side never even really tried to attack against Klopp’s side. Then, last weekend against Huddersfield, whether or not they tried to attack, they weren’t able to. They had a late opportunity to pick up the draw, but ...
This is the face of a man who knows he can't blame this defeat on Luke Shaw pic.twitter.com/7EMz5xTtSo— Kumbaya Shit (@MrScripto) October 21, 2017
Any moment of beautiful attacking synthesis in a Mourinho side is a happy accident—or because of the talents of someone singular like Paul Pogba, who’s taking a really long time to get back. These teams color by the numbers. Concede possession if you have to, risk numbers forward only as absolutely necessary, take the chances you’re given. It’s utilitarian to the point of agnostic, and it’s worked in the form of league titles and Champions League trophies across Portugal, Spain, Italy, and, of course, England. But it’s unclear if it’ll work in England anymore. With the top tier of the league growing from four clubs to six, the “just get a point against the good teams” approach of years past might not be enough for a Premier League title in 2017. And yet, Mourinho hasn’t won an away game against a top-six side since 2014.
Now, the recent rough stretch isn’t all down to Mourinho’s conservatism. Injuries are not José’s fault—thinking one Ander Herrera equals one Pogba might be, though—and neither is the weather, nor is the face he has, which betrays all kinds of things. He looks exactly as bad as you’d expect him to feel, failing against Huddersfield in a way no other United manager has in 65 years. It’s totally believable that he flung his wet mac coat on the floor of the locker room in disgust soon after full time while demanding passion, or at least limp interest, from his players. But it’s not the rain-soaked grimace; it’s the I’ve been staying up nights in the throng of an existential crisis stubble that’s worrying.
Clean-shaven and wearing his team-issued shirt, Mourinho was “on fire” to start off the campaign, ready to “go for it” in all competitions, which no one took literally, but what’s changed? What’s curdled his mood? Chelsea seem to have already given up, Liverpool seem ready to collapse in on themselves, Arsène Wenger rarely does so well against his father—he’s beaten him just twice in 27 meetings, one of those coming in the 2015 Community Shield match—so let’s consider Manchester City, the other title challengers, who are horrifying and feel inevitable. Pep Guardiola has effectively turned Kevin De Bruyne into Heimdall, Gabriel Jesus is beginning to somehow resemble both of his namesakes, and it feels as though none of their opponents ever really touch the ball. To that end, City haven’t lost a game yet. They’re on pace to score 1,000 goals this season. The volume of the goals isn’t as terrifying as the way in which they score them; United beats Everton 4-0 with three goals in the last 10 minutes because of the opponent’s tired legs, while City bangs in seven goals on Stoke because they’re pissed about giving up two. At the risk of oversimplifying, if there’s something City doesn’t like about a game, they’re brawny and capable enough to change it.
Again, though, it is October, and “concern” can’t be distanced too far from “troll” yet. Players will return from injury, Lukaku will go back to converting most of the chances he’s supposed to. And while Manchester City are good, they also still have 29 games to play, and there are more immediate things for United to worry about, like Tottenham on Saturday. Mauricio Pochettino’s side is level on points with United, but they also scored four goals each against Huddersfield and Liverpool. They beat Dortmund 3-1 at Wembley, and drew Real Madrid in a nail-biter at the Bernabéu with a starting 11 short of Dele Alli, Danny Rose, Moussa Dembélé, and Victor Wanyama. Will the Premier League wind up a two-horse race between the Spurs and the Citizens? We’ll be closer to an answer come Saturday at full time.
Good defending isn’t a crime, and neither is smashing bottom-rung teams, both of which have been sufficient to get results, and eventually hardware, for Mourinho in the past. “There are lots of poets in football, but poets, they don’t win many titles,” he said after squeezing past Ajax in the Europa League final last season. But it’s hard to feel good about things like owing a 1-0 win to a goalkeeping error, and a current five-point gap between United and the league leaders can only widen if Mourinho continues waiting for teams that aren’t Burton or Basel or Crystal Palace to “open the door” to him. If he can change, now would be a good time.