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Want to explain Manchester United's inconsistency? Look to Jose Mourinho

Sunday 6th May 2018

There is nothing more frustrating in any sport, let alone football, than a club not winning the matches it should. It’s even more agonising when the side is bossing the best teams. At the beginning of the season, Mourinho believed he had a squad that could win the Premier League title. The team's record against top-six rivals proves him right. The only problem was the manager.

This season, Manchester United’s record against their top-six rivals eclipses that against the three newly promoted teams and the other four in the relegation battle.

United v Top Six [6-1-2] Pts   Pts United v Prom/Rel [8-2-4]
      3 Brighton
Arsenal 6   3 Huddersfield
Chelsea 6   3 Newcastle
Liverpool 4   4 Southampton
Manchester City 3   4 Stoke
Tottenham 3   6 Swansea
      3 West Brom
Points taken from 30 22   26 Points taken from 42
% Points taken 73   62 % Points taken


You would expect the Red Devils to have fewer defeats and more points taken when facing bottom-table clubs than they do against teams battling them for a Champions League place. The opposite has been the case. For the first time in their history, United has lost away to all three newly promoted sides.

There is only one explanation for such inconsistency. The team lacks commitment. They are not playing for each other. They are not playing for the manager.

Some will blame the players, others the manager. The ones who fall into the former camp will call for the boss to clear out the deadwood and the club to give Mourinho funds to go shopping in the summer window. Those who blame the manager will protest that the problem will continue as long as he stays.

In truth, it can be both. That said, it is the manager's responsibility to motivate his players, not to repeatedly complain to the media that they lack desire.

Let’s face it. Jose Mourinho has a long history of feuding with players. Bad blood began with Claude Makelele at Chelsea, continued with Ricardo Quaresma at Inter, then began to boil at Real Madrid when he went to war with Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas. It flowed freely when he returned to Chelsea. Juan Mata. David Luiz. Cesc Fabregas. Eden Hazard. He fell out with them all. Worse, he demoted Eva Carneiro for going onto the pitch to treat an injured Hazard in a match where the Blues were already down a man. Her litigation cost the club a pretty penny and then they ended up sacking the Portuguese. A little foresight might have saved the Blues' season, some money, and a competent medical professional.

When he first arrived at United, Mourinho and Juan Mata initially renewed their hostilities but the Portuguese could not afford any appearance of having already lost the dressing room. He hastily walked back subbing off the Spaniard in the Community Shield after having only sent him on around the hour mark. This season, there have been two public clashes, with Luke Shaw and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Mourinho has managed to keep any battles with Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial from developing into more than rumour. Now, there’s a hint he may have a problem with Eric Bailly.

John Cross quoted the Ivorian in the Mirror as “feeling frozen out” of the squad. Mourinho denied any rift, saying he was merely giving his World Cup eligible players minutes now that there was nothing to play for in the Premier League. The title is decided. Champions League football for 2018/19  is assured. The only meaningful match is the FA Cup final.

On its face, it appeared to be good man-management. I even tweeted that opinion in a recent thread. Then I spoke with a friend who had his doubts. Dale O’Donnell is a journalist who runs a Manchester United fan site and has contributed on matters Man United and otherwise to the Mirror, Daily Mail, and the BBC. He told me he believed Cross had it right. Another colleague, he told me, had interviewed Bailly’s agent, who did not deny his client had expressed concerns. That’s admittedly hearsay rather than ironclad proof. However, it comes from a source I trust.

Assuming Cross’ quote is accurate, Mourinho’s denial can be explained in three ways.

  1. He’s lying.
  2. He’s telling the truth but didn’t think to explain himself to the players he was benching.
  3. He’s telling the truth and Bailly is gaming him.

The first two options don’t paint Mourinho in a sunny light.

It’s hardly a shock that the United boss could be hiding the truth. He’s been known to do it in the past. Virtually every manager will lie to keep club business out of the public eye. But the only reason Jose can have for lying about this is to protect himself. I’ll get to the rationale behind that conclusion in a moment but I want to deal with the second and third options before I do.

Deciding to do a favour for players in a series of dead rubber matches but not explaining his plan to the other squad members who will sacrifice playing time is a mistake only an inexperienced manager would make. Mourinho is known to manipulate players, opposing coaches, and the media on such a level that the term Machiavellian should be replaced by ‘Mourinhian’. He stopped being inexperienced when he won the UEFA Cup with Porto [before he won the Champions League, kiddies]. It’s not a mistake he would make. That's why every time he shrugs and answers a reporter with, "What can I do?" I want to scream. He is the manager, and [for short spells at a given club] a damned good one. He knows what to do but isn't willing to own the responsibility for not getting it done.

After all, his motivation for helping Phil Jones, Victor Lindelof, and Marcos Rojo impress their national bosses wasn’t done out of benevolence. Don't try to sell me that load of fertiliser. Mourinho would have wanted those players to owe him something next season. If the players forced to sit were complicit in his ‘altruism’, they too would play for him, anticipating similar consideration would be extended to them in the future. No, he would have thought this ploy through to derive maximum benefit from it.

The third option appears to foist the blame on Bailly. Not all of it belongs with him, however. If, after two seasons at the club, Bailly feels he can disrespect his manager and teammates to promote his personal interests, what does that say about Mourinho’s judgment when it comes to recruits?

Of his four original signings, the Special One appears to have now fallen out with three, regardless whether the dishonesty in this matter originates with him or Bailly. Among the quartet, only Zlatan Ibrahimovic can be termed a success. The injury that cut short his United tenure was not in any way Mourinho’s fault. The Swede gave him and the fans more than we had a right to expect.

But the Portuguese has benched and sold Mkhitaryan, as well as benching Pogba, whom he cannot sell. Given the money the board paid Juventus on his recommendation, such a request would almost certainly get them thinking they’ve hired the wrong man. Now he has a problem with Bailly. What must they think about that? Does he not rate another player he recommended? Or is there a character issue he failed to detect or, like Pogba, cannot correct? Either way, a man like Mourinho can only see one option to protect himself from such scrutiny. He must lie.

To be honest, it doesn’t matter who is telling the truth. The pattern is already well established. Wherever Jose Mourinho manages, trust issues appear like house pets at the sound of a can opener. Whatever success he brings is never sustainable. It happened at Chelsea, then Inter, Real, and Chelsea again. Now it is occurring at Manchester United.

The club can continue supplying their manager with new players to betray or they can be rid of him. It’s their choice.

Manchester United News
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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