Dressed in a simple black blazer and a crisp white shirt, Jose Mourinho looked better than he had in weeks. Haggard during Manchester United’s pre-season tour, the Portuguese was calm and resigned after his team’s collapse against Brighton. It seemed, as he drawled sleepily to the assembled media, like a weight had been lifted.
Reuters/Andrew CouldridgeWe’ve come a long way since Mourinho’s new contract, a two year-extension signed in January of this year.
“Jose has already achieved a great deal as Manchester United manager,” enthused chief executive Ed Woodward at the time “and I am delighted that he has agreed to extend his contract…”.
Yet Woodward, small and bristling during Saturday’s abject performance, has done more than anyone to undermine his struggling manager. He should have known about the slurs, the headlines, the incessant negativity of Mourinho’s management style long before he gave him the keys to Old Trafford.
Woodward should have expected, too, that his manager would have no interest in youth academies or long-term strategies. Mourinho is interested only in immediacy. Established stars are his purview, and he expects his employers to back him irrespective of the cost. None of this put Woodward off in January, so why is it such a problem now?
A PR disaster
Reuters/David KleinNot for the first time in his tenure, the United chief executive has made a damaging miscalculation. His well-publicised refusal to pursue Mourinho’s transfer targets begs the obvious question: if he's not going to back him, why keep him?
The decision to pursue younger players with sell-on values is fine in theory, but not with Mourinho at the helm. Not with a coach whose entire career is at odds with such a half-baked, Liverpool-lite recruitment strategy.
The result, both in PR and playing terms, has been disastrous. Woodward has left his manager out to dry, and that’s without even mentioning his attempts to recruit a sporting director. For Mourinho, the man who brought United closer to a title than anyone since Alex Ferguson, it has been a very public emasculation.
Woodward isn’t solely to blame for United’s club’s troubles. Mourinho will point to the absences of Nemanja Matic, Alexis Sanchez and Antonio Valencia as mitigating factors in the Brighton defeat. All are experienced first team players, and all would have been guaranteed starters ahead of Andreas Pereira, Juan Mata and Ashley Young.
The Portuguese must take blame too, for some of the signings that the club have indulged. Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly arrived at Mourinho's behest. Both were heralded as the solution to the club’s defensive woes, and both have failed to develop under his tutelage. Lindelof in particular has a long way to go.
The sole spark
Reuters/David KleinThe ongoing feud with Paul Pogba doesn’t help either. The Frenchman’s stock has never been higher, after a thrilling World Cup victory in Russia. He has carried that form into the new season, providing the sole bright spark in a dismal performance on Saturday.
Yet Pogba was surprisingly frank after the Brighton game. "My attitude wasn't right enough," he admitted, but the implication was wider. Why, he encourages us to ask, can't his manager motivate his players at this stage of the season?
Pogba isn’t performing to save Mourinho’s job. He knows with every glittering display, his influence grows whilst that of his manager fades. It is a zero-sum game, and Woodward, forced to choose between a £90 million investment with huge commercial appeal or an ageing and cantankerous manager, will only go one way.
Maybe Mourinho is a dinosaur. Maybe his bombast and aggression is out of place in the smooth mockumentaries and spreadsheets of modern football. Or maybe he has been systematically undermined by a chief executive for whom footballing interests have never been the main concern. Maybe he is at a club for whom shirt sales and viral shares are more important than on-field results. Either way, it’s going to be a messy break-up, and one that could have been avoided totally with more canny long-term planning.