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The Unnecessary Misery of José Mourinho’s Manchester United

Will United’s über-talented squad win out? Or will Mourinho have his patented third-season meltdown?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

How’s José Mourinho’s summer been? Let’s take a quick run through The Guardian headlines:

  • “José Mourinho says pre-season is ‘very bad’ because of World Cup absentees”
  • “José Mourinho refuses to be drawn on Manchester United’s title chances”
  • “Anthony Martial’s departure from tour deals José Mourinho new blow”
  • “Sombre José Mourinho looks a beaten man before the season even starts”
  • “‘In trouble’: José Mourinho lashes out at Manchester United transfer process”
  • “José Mourinho’s moaning makes Manchester United post precarious”
  • “Manchester United missing a trick with José Mourinho: the reality show”
  • “Spat with Anthony Martial shows José Mourinho needs to buy a waistcoat”

That’s a year’s worth of snark, sadness, and sartorial suggestions—and it’s all from the past two weeks. It certainly seems like we’re headed for another edition of Third Season Mourinho. After earning a then–Premier League record 91 points with Chelsea in his second season with the club in 2005-06, Mourinho’s team finished his third year in second place and he left the club the following September. Real Madrid won La Liga over Pep Guardiola’s seemingly invincible Barcelona in his second year with the team in 2011-12. But Mourinho spent his third season with Real Madrid destroying his relationship with team captain Iker Casillas and finishing without a major trophy before leaving Madrid soon after the season ended, among other things. Then, after returning to Chelsea and rather easily winning another Premier League title in his second season, it happened again. Despite signing a new four-year contract that August, Mourinho authored his most spectacular meltdown yet—first berating beloved team doctor Eva Carneiro, and then stewarding the team’s descent all the way down to 16th place before he left in mid-December.

The history, the tea leaves, the betting markets (which, on average, peg Mourinho as the second-most likely manager behind Leicester City’s Claude Puel to be fired), and the projection systems (FiveThirtyEight rates United as the sixth-best team in the Premier League) all suggest that we should get our popcorn ready. Mourinho’s mood makes the flameout feel like a fait accompli, but it really shouldn’t be.

Despite driving expectations toward the floor this past month, Mourinho’s team did finish second in the Premier League … last season. Superstars like Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, David de Gea, and Alexis Sánchez dot the roster. They won 81 points—the same number that Leicester rode to that magical title in 2015-16. In games among teams in the top six, United won more points than any team other than record-setting Manchester City. In fact, Mourinho beat every team in the league last year. When measured against the sixth- (69 points) and fifth-place (66 points) finishes of the prior two seasons, that seems, inarguably, like progress.

However, the table isn’t a good predictor of future success. United’s underlying numbers actually declined from Mourinho’s first year to his second year. Based on expected goals, United would typically get around 62 points with last year’s performance, while the year before they performed closer to a 71-point team.

The biggest difference was in the defense. Mourinho has made his bones as a conservative coach. As Diego Torres described in his biography of the manager, his philosophy included the following: “Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake … Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake … Whoever has the ball has fear … Whoever doesn’t is thereby stronger.” In contrast to the helter-skelter pressing employed by the majority of the top teams in Europe in an effort to immediately regain possession, Mourinho wants his players to defend as a unit with all 11 dropping behind the ball and then attempting to win it back. As StatsBomb’s data from last season shows, United did pressure their opponents across the field—but the pressure itself just wasn’t effective. Despite having the least possession among all the teams in the top six, United also made the joint fewest tackles.

United conceded more shots than 14th-place Watford and just a handful fewer than 16th-place Huddersfield. Watford and the rest of the top six all allowed fewer passes than United within 20 yards of their own goal. United allowed 43.54 expected goals, which was fifth-best in the league. Most notably, it was more than the 31.62 allowed last season and the 31.52 Chelsea allowed in Mourinho’s last title-winning season in 2014-15. Something was clearly wrong last year, and only David De Gea’s weekly heroics kept the bottom from falling out. He made 115 saves last season; that’s just 11 fewer than all of Liverpool and City’s keepers combined.

Soccer is a game of trade-offs. And relying on the best keeper in the world to put together one of the best statistical seasons in recent memory isn’t the worst strategy—if it allows you to unleash a world-beating attack. But despite all of the talent, United scored just the fifth-most goals in the Premier League last season. Their underlying numbers were only slightly better than the year before.

And so, here we are: United overachieved in a season that saw them get knocked out of the round of 16 by Sevilla and finish 19 points back of first place. This summer, the club added Fred, a versatile central midfielder from Shakhtar Donetsk, Diogo Dalot, a promising Portuguese fullback for the future, Lee Grant, a backup keeper … and that’s it. From that standpoint, you can understand why Mourinho refuses to talk about the title race and why he spent the past few weeks dragging a cloud across North America. His team wasn’t great last year, and they barely did anything to get better.

But this is what Mourinho does. With all of his postgame and preseason bluster, he creates his own reality—currently, one in which the wealthiest club in the world just doesn’t have the resources to compete. Mourinho already has one of the best squads in the world, even without any more additions.

The consultancy 21st Club has created a model that calculates how many points an individual player is worth compared to a league-average player—vaguely akin to the NBA’s plus-minus stats. Per their player rater, the average of United’s top 11 players (regardless of position) is fifth-best in the world, and only second behind City in England. Expand that out to the top 18 players, and United are tied for third with City among all teams.

And yet, 21st Club’s projections, which include the team’s past performances, have United finishing fourth in the Premier League. Meanwhile, the betting markets project them in third—but closer to sixth than to second.

It might just be that Mourinho isn’t fit to manage a team with this kind of talent and resources anymore. Pogba both flourished with a Juventus team that lost in the Champions League final and a France side that won the World Cup, but Mourinho has struggled to unleash his diverse skill set that plenty other managers have enjoyed. Anthony Martial is just 22, and he was United’s most productive attacking player when he saw the field last year, but Mourinho wants to sell him. Alexis Sánchez is one of the great Premier League players of the modern era, and his scoring and chance creation got hit with a buzzsaw as soon as he arrived at Old Trafford in January. United demand the kind of proactive approach that Mourinho has made a career of undermining.

Since goals are so rare in soccer, managerial tactics are really just an attempt to push the odds further in your team’s favor. According to 21st Club’s numbers, the team that “creates notably more dangerous chances” only wins the game 64 percent of the time. But when there’s more than 2.5 goals in a given game, the dominant team comes out on top 75 percent of the time. And when there are fewer than 2.5 goals, that number drops all the way down to 50. To be a truly dominant team and raise yourself above randomness, then you should try to win 2-1, rather than 1-0. And guess what? Last season, United’s games featured fewer goals than every other team in the top six.

Of course, defense-centric teams like Juventus and Atlético Madrid have experienced sustained success over the past half-decade, but Juventus have so much more money than anyone else in Italy that it probably doesn’t matter how they play, and Atletico will always be underdogs in La Liga and in the Champions League, so it makes sense for them to keep scoring to a minimum. Plus, Juventus and Atletico both had legitimately good defenses last year, allowing 28.58 and 35.48 expected goals. Meanwhile, United’s defense consistently broke down at every level before the goalkeeper.

If United play like they did last year, chances are they won’t finish in second; they might even not finish in the top four. In fact, were this a less wealthy, less talented team, it would be smart to expect them to tumble back down the table based on their underlying numbers. Except there’s just too much talent at Mourinho’s disposal to pencil the Red Devils in to regress. With a week to go until the season, there isn’t a top-six team with a wider range of pathways ahead of them. But if the upcoming season turns out to not be a Third-Season Mourinho Special, it’ll be because of the players, not the manager.