Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Mourinho's Damoclean Days

HOW MUCH LONGER CAN THE SPECIAL ONE STAY AT MANCHESTER UNITED?

Sanchez saved the day but when your number might be up, a week can be a long time in football.

Saturday at Old Trafford was a dose of high drama, a 90 minutes of back-and-forth narratives which makes the Beautiful Game so intoxicating.

Desperate for a win with rumours swirling of an imminent managerial casualty, Manchester United went 2-0 down to lowly Newcastle, shockingly, within only ten minutes.

Funereal bells for Jose Mourinho's job could surely be heard pealing from afar.

The theatre of dreams had turned into the last-chance saloon for the increasingly so-called Special One, who had zipped his jacket up to its high neckline in a symbolic effort to keep out the world.

At the best of times he tries to keep his public emotions in check, like his predecessor Louis Van Gaal showing an uncompromising brick wall to the world, although one feels with the Portuguese it is merely a tactic rather than his character.

There was no need for the travelling Toon army to sing "Sacked in the Morning"; by half-time every hack was penning an obit for Mourinho in Manchester. The Daily Mirror was licking its lips at having been bold in predicting his firing that weekend, in bold letters on their back page.

Then bang, the riot act was read in the changing rooms and a second-half transformation saw United claw back the deficit and take all three points from an Alexis Sanchez winner. The fat lady sang and the dead man walked again.

In the clear light of Sunday however, it still looked like Mourinho had a huge job on his hands to keep his job at Old Trafford.

That remains the common consensus following the Red Devils' stunted start to a season.

Never mind the recent stumbles - a spot-kick loss to Derby in the League Cup, a Champions League draw at home to Valencia and a dismal 3-1 defeat by West Ham in the Premier League, tenth in the table after seven games is far too low for a club of United's fame, following and resources.

This comeback victory was certainly welcome and may well have bought Mourinho breathing time, but once the international break is over a quartet of tough asks await: Chelsea and Manchester City away in the Premier League and home and away tussles with Juventus in the Champions League.

Stranger things have happened of course but it is hard to see the Red Devils grabbing four wins out of four, though Champions League progress may keep Mourinho's seat safe.

For what it is worth, and it may be precious little, he did receive a text assuring him his job was safe on Saturday morning and as recently as January signed a contract to keep him at the club until 2020.

But Van Gaal was fired with a year left on his deal of course and David Moyes was shown the door only ten months into a six-year signed commitment by the club.

The warning signs of a permanent rupture have been there for around a year. Mourinho appeared distant and mournful to journalists in the second half of last season, as if he was sending a message between the lines that all was not well.

Then a summer of moaning about the lack of signings and sullen resignation from the manager set an exceptionally negative tone to the season's start. More bitter resentment than a hopeful new beginning.

Mourinho's gloom carried over into an opening day 0-3 home loss to Tottenham, who are not even the team they were last season. Arsenal also lost at home in their first home fixture, but Unai Emery has turned the team around and they are on a winning roll.

If the axe falls, it will not be controversial. Mourinho has won only the Europa League and the League Cup in his two campaigns at Old Trafford.

Despite a squad which other managers would give their eye teeth for - who can complain of lacking resources when David De Gea, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez are playing for you, Mourinho's Man U remain a sum of their parts, lacking fluency, rhythm or identity.

When a manager is "on deathwatch" so to speak, it is hard to know the truth from the outside. It is easy for the press to launch into cliches like "he has lost the dressing room" or to assert that some of his players are deliberately underperforming to "throw him under the bus."

Pogba in particular, the brightest of his heavenly bodies, is frequently dull and insipid, allegedly itching for a move in the New Year.

His flat first half against Newcastle added credence to that suspicion. But then Mourinho apparently energised him in the dressing room, empowering him to take control of the match, and he came out firing on all cylinders.

In general, the Portuguese is a man frustrated by his inability to make the team gel and constrained by the need to keep his job, so he limits himself to passing asides about his employers leaving his requests unfulfilled and to journalists he just bats away probings about his side's shortcomings, reducing press conferences to dour, unanswered monologues.

Perhaps the problem is that his neutralising style of play which worked so well with Chelsea has been overtaken by the more attack-minded Manchester City, Juventus and Real Madrid and he is unable to adapt and evolve.

The statistics show United play deeper and more defensively than most of their rivals, eschewing the 'gegenpressing' high up the field popularised by Jurgen Klopp. Better to sap their flamboyant enemy then hit them with a sucker punch against the run of play, thinks Mourinho.

While one cannot argue with his trophy haul across four countries, his footballing philosophy has the whiff of growing obsolescence.

It is hard to sack a man whose team is winning however, so Sanchez's rescue goal on Saturday may come to have as much resonance as Mark Robins' famous FA Cup goal against Nottingham Forest which saved Alex Ferguson from the sack and let him build his dream at Old Trafford.

But Mourinho must salvage the season and realistically bag some silverware with an eleven which is still disjointed and who only fitfully spark into life.

At the end of the day it is a results-based business, unless someone's personality clashes too many times with one's employers or employees. Alas for Mourinho, his previous jobs suggest his character will sooner or later, no matter the personnel.

If he is to leave, the January transfer window seems the opportune time to let a new man shape the side and it is hard to believe Ed Woodward & Co. have not already sounded out some alternatives, not least Zinedine Zidane.

Saturday was a relief for all concerned, especially for a manager who spoke of "a manhunt" after the match and being blamed for the rain and Brexit, but it will all begin again the next time United fail to win a match.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

It has always been a cruel and unforgiving game, football where you are only as good as your last result.

But that has always been the deal, even for 'The Special One'.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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