A week is a long time in football. Just ask Arsene Wenger – he went from walking his team out at yet another Wembley final to being vilified after two humbling defeats on the bounce to a far superior Manchester City team.
Jose Mourinho is finding that out now as well. The architect of Manchester United’s win over fierce rivals Liverpool last Saturday afternoon now finds his tactics, his purchases and his managerial style being questioned after Sevilla dumped his team out of the Champions League just three days later.
Some reports on Thursday suggested his position is being considered at the very top at Old Trafford, that Mourinho is ‘not the manager we thought he was’, according to one source.
Funny that, because to almost everyone else, Mourinho is turning out to be exactly the manager we thought he was.
Mourinho is the arch-pragmatist. The man who always knew exactly what was needed to get a result, and was not afraid to put a few noses out of joint to achieve it. One of the reasons why he wasn’t in line for the United job when Alex Ferguson retired was the perceived ‘negative’ approach.
Another was his cranky, tempestuous nature. So, on appointing him in May 2016, which of these traits did United’s chief executive Ed Woodward think Mourinho had given up?
The truth is United knew exactly what they were getting. The requirements for the role had changed from when Ferguson left in 2013. Mourinho would be welcomed, mood swings and negative tactics and all, because with it came a man capable of winning the game’s biggest prizes.
So maybe that’s what’s different.
Winning the Europa League last season was Mourinho’s way into the Champions League this term, at the expense of a place in the top four. The pragmatist was hard at work again.
This season, United have made some headway and are favourites for a second place finish behind their runaway rivals, City. They’re also still in the FA Cup, with only Tottenham and Chelsea remaining as likely challengers.
But, now out of the Champions League, suddenly something’s not right. Mourinho’s style – his football as well as his personality – are a little harder to swallow when the big prizes aren’t being won.
Woodward probably didn’t expect to not win the Premier League within Mourinho’s first two seasons. He certainly didn’t expect to not even have a decent crack at it. Looking towards next season, can he really see United catching City? Whether that’s because of Mourinho’s failings, or the exceptional quality of Pep Guardiola’s team, doesn’t really matter. The forecast looks dull.
So what of Mourinho and his famed ‘negative’ tactics. Why aren’t they working in the way they used to?
Is a squad of players who probably spend as much time working on elaborate handshake routines as they do defending corners, able to follow such an intricate gameplan with the diligence of players past?
Mourinho’s Champions League-winning Inter team from 2010 was peppered with warriors and leaders. The likes of Javier Zanetti, Lucio, Walter Samuel and Maicon were vital components in protecting a 3-1 lead at the Camp Nou against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, in a now legendary defensive performance. Many forget that they did it with nine men behind the ball, rather than the customary ten, as Thiago Motta was sent off inside the first 30 minutes.
On that occasion they had something to defend, of course. On Tuesday night they didn’t, so the tactical approach has come into question.
But did Mourinho get his tactics wrong, or did his team lack the necessary nous, or even the will, to follow the plan through?
The modern game must feel unrecognisable at times. The instant condemnation by fans on social media and the headline-grabbing comments by TV pundits are a particular annoyance. The flamboyance, delicate egos and carefully crafted personas of the modern superstar are alien to him. It’s difficult to imagine Mourinho having the kind of bond with Paul Pogba or Romelu Lukaku that he once had with John Terry or Marco Materazzi. Can you imagine him running along the touchline celebrating a United goal the way he did at Porto in 2004?
Mourinho once questioned Arsene Wenger’s compatibility with modern football after Arsenal went eight years without a trophy, calling his nemesis a ‘specialist in failure’. Is Mourinho now finding himself to be yesterday’s man, whilst Wenger takes up residence even further in football’s past?
Modern football has changed. The way it is played, as well as the way it is consumed. It’s different to eight years ago, when Mourinho last won the Champions League.
Maybe Pep Guardiola will find that the game has moved on beyond his comprehension in ten years time.
It’s been 15 years since Mourinho came to prominence. If a week is a long time in football, what is that? An eternity?