We have seen “classic” José Mourinho in both the best and worst way this week. On Saturday, Manchester United produced a performance that bore all the hallmarks of the Portuguese’s best qualities to see off Liverpool and tighten their grip on second place in the Premier League.
Dejan Lovren and Trent Alexander-Arnold were identified as weak links pre-match and Mourinho devised a gameplan to ruthlessly exploit them. United did so delightfully. Marcus Rashford romped through to score two almost identical goals before Mourinho embarked on an archetypal spoiling job. The second-most potent attack in England was nullified comfortably and Old Trafford responded with a raucous atmosphere to match.
Two days later, still riding the crest of a wave after seeing off United’s bitterest rivals, The Special One landed another hammer-blow, this time off the pitch. Mourinho responded to Frank de Boer’s criticism of his handling of Rashford by calling the Dutchman “the worst manager in Premier League history.” United fans lapped it up on social media.
This was their manager rediscovering the fire in his belly off the pitch having just got the balance right on it; in a game that really mattered.
But Tuesday’s embarrassing Champions League defeat to Sevilla was classic Mourinho for all the wrong reasons.
Marouane Fellaini was drafted in from the cold, Rashford was switched from right to left and Juan Mata was dropped to the bench. United’s attack, such a clinical machine against Liverpool, became a rabble. Unable to generate any momentum or play with any cohesion, the Reds were dominated for much of the must-win match.
Eventually they were punished and Mourinho went full Mourinho after the game. His comments were disrespectful to the club and its fans and were a blatant and cynical self-preservation method.
Mourinho used to create siege mentalities - his club versus the world - but now he only fights to protect himself. His own reputation is all that matters and all failings are brought about by factors beyond his control.
Then, speaking ahead of United’s third vital game of the week, the FA Cup quarter final against Brighton, he came prepared. He had notes and he went on a twelve-minute rant, attempting to explain away Tuesday night’s failure.
His ramblings centred on United’s poor record in both the league and European competition before he arrived, in contrast to that of neighbours Manchester City. He moaned that he inherited a worse squad than Pep Guardiola did across the city and therefore he needs more time to turn it around. He spoke in terms of raw numbers and while their merits and importance can be debated at length, they are largely irrelevant to the events of Tuesday night.
The last five seasons had no bearing on Mourinho’s conservative approach in both legs. They had no impact on United’s abject performance. They are not the reason that United only attacked at 2-0 down.
This was Mourinho at his narcissistic worst, only out to protect himself. He spoke of unity with his players but undermined that by claiming many of the ones he inherited were substandard.
He can talk more generally about the past five seasons and who City already had and didn’t have when Pep Guardiola arrived but there is also another significant fact; when both men arrived in Manchester in the summer of 2016, the two Manchester clubs had finished dead level on points, with City only ahead on goal difference. United had won the FA Cup, while City won the League Cup.
From similar starting points, Guardiola has left Mourinho in the dust. Both men have invested heavily so the “chequebook manager” slight can equally apply to both. José knows this and is taking drastic measures to pull the wool over the eyes of United’s fans. That is an affront to the club and using the words “football heritage” to outline City’s superiority was a horrific choice.
If I am being sympathetic, it is harsh to judge a man speaking in a second language so pedantically on semantics. On the other hand, everything he said was planned so it is hard not to conclude that every word was hand-picked.
Heritage refers to history, to longevity, to periods that extend far beyond the past five years. In truth, heritage is one of the only places United trump City right now.
There are plenty of areas in which the blue half of Manchester are on top right now; style of football, ability to win, coaching players so they improve, long-term joined up thinking, a clear club identity, the transfer market and of course the league table. Heritage is not one of them.
This week has felt like a turning point for many United fans. I will never call for a manager to get sacked because there is something undignified and classless about publicly demanding that any professional lose their job – even Arsene Wenger.
But it’s reached the point now where I’m indifferent to Mourinho being allowed to carry on into next season. His way is not the only way back to the top. He is a manager who tends to stick around for three years and over halfway into that timeframe, United are still a way from where they need to be.
And Mourinho seems less concerned about rectifying that on the pitch as protecting his own reputation off it, right now. His teams used to counter-punch with venom but these days, he lands his biggest blows in press conferences.
We have seen before that Mourinho’s self-centred mentality can bring a club into disarray, even a juggernaut like Real Madrid. There are all the signs that it will happen again now at United.
This is classic Mourinho.