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The terrible luck of Jose Mourinho

Manchester United's manager is convinced that his side are "the unluckiest" in the Premier League. We wonder what his angle is.

Manchester United v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Jose Mourinho is unhappy.

This is not news. Mourinho — or at least, the public-facing persona of Mourinho, which is all we have to go on — hasn't been happy for some time now. His interviews are sullen and sulky; his smiles don't touch his eyes; and as he prowls around the dugout, his face is the face of a man who doesn't know where that smell came from but doesn't like it, and is slightly worried that it might be him.

Whether Mourinho is actually unhappy, deep down, is matter for him, his family, and his therapist. But it's interesting to keep an eye on who or what he seems to be unhappy with. So far this season he's railed against the general softness of some of his players, referees (pre- and post-game), journalists, European scheduling, the fixture list, the squad he inherited from his predecessors, and even his living arrangements. That last point may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it's hard to tell.

He's also, as something of a theme over the last month or so, blamed luck. Here he is after the Arsenal game:

I have nothing to say against my players, but I feel sorry for them because we feel like a defeat and Arsenal is feeling like a victory. If we just focus on [draws against] Burnley, Stoke and Arsenal — nine points easily. If we had those six points more we are top four and close to the top of the league. We all know inside that in this moment we are the unlucky team in the Premier League.

Now, with most of Mourinho's targets, there's an actor or actors involved, and so it's a conspiracy. Somebody, somewhere, is working against Mourinho's interests: the officials, the press, those fools that arranged the football season. Even complaints about the ostensibly random fixture list comes with the suggestion that somebody's put the fix in. Recall David Moyes, who couldn't believe that was the way the balls came out of the bag.

Luck is different. Luck is not a person or an organisation; luck does not and cannot have it in for Manchester United. Luck just is; it is the universe taking your intended actions and then messing around with the consequences. If you get lucky, your actions will work the way that you want them too, or perhaps even better. If you don't, then Burnley's keeper might have the game of his life.

The extent to which luck affects sport is a matter of some debate. On the one hand there's the maxim often attributed to either Arnold Palmer or Gary Player, that runs something like "The more I practice, the luckier I get" and asserts, in effect, that the conscientious sportsperson can overcome the vagaries of chance by applying themselves to their craft. On the other, analysts Chris Anderson and David Sally have concluded that once all the data's been crunched, "football is basically a 50/50 game. Half of it is luck, and half of it skill."

Certainly, complaints about luck don't tend to attract much sympathy. The Times went with "United are the unluckiest team in England, moans Mourinho", and there are plenty of "Actually, Jose, United are just rubbish" pieces floating around. And that's easy to understand, since United are visibly underperforming in several ways. Though equally, there's probably a little bit of truth contained within the complaints: the draw against Stoke, for example, relied on three very unusual things all combining to frustrating effect. David de Gea drops a clanger and all United's forwards forget how to finish and the opposing goalkeeper has an astounding game, all at the same? Probably okay to take a moment to rail against the gods and their capricious whimsy.

What's interesting, though, is what luck as a target of complaint says about Mourinho, and his opinion of his team. If we assume that Mourinho is still more a professional football manager than a professional moaner — and we probably have to, just about — then we can assume that when he goes off about, say, Luke Shaw, he's doing so because he's trying to communicate something, to manage. Maybe he thinks it'll provoke Shaw for the better, or it'll serve as an instructive example to the rest of the team. Maybe both. And maybe he's hopelessly wrong in those thoughts. But this seems a more likely explanation than 'Mourinho thinks Luke Shaw's a hopeless soft lad and he fancies humiliating him'.

So when Mourinho starts complaining about luck, about the wider malignancy of the universe, what does this mean? A pessimist might conclude that a Mourinho who isn't fizzing about some conspiracy or other is, on one level, no Mourinho at all; that he is as broken as he seems to be. That the final act of Mourinho ends with him realising that lurking behind all the other enemies, the FA and the opposition and the referees and Pep Guardiola, was his true adversary, the vast and uncaring universe, the foe over which there can be no victory, the enemy that never blinks. That, you suspect, would not end well.

More optimistically, we might conclude that it means nothing more than what it says: that Mourinho genuinely considers his side's performances to be better than the results. This would be encouraging. We know that Mourinho isn't shy about dragging his own players when he feels the need or senses the opportunity, so when he chooses not to, we could perhaps infer that his side is starting to work in the way he wants it to. Or at least, it's working as far as it possibly can. When a manager is blaming luck he isn't blaming anybody or anything else, most notably his own players. And when he isn't blaming anybody else it might just mean that further public castigation isn't necessary or, at least, isn't useful.

This doesn't mean that Mourinho is happy with United's performances, results or squad balance; there's still plenty of coaching and shopping in Manchester United's future, we can be sure of that. But perhaps it suggests that he's getting a response from the players that he's picking, to the point that he no longer needs to humiliate them in public. It says to those players: keep doing what you're doing, and the luck will turn. That's the thing about choosing luck as your enemy. The implication is always that it has to turn, eventually. As long as you keep flipping, the coin will come down your way.

Or maybe he's just decided that calling his players useless and the FA incompetent isn't actually doing any good. Either way, there's something for everybody to smile about in there. Except Mourinho. He doesn't smile any more.