Comment and Analysis @ghostgoal
Jose Mourinho's Manchester United mantra is to prime fans for failure
Last Updated: 03/05/17 6:14am
Jose Mourinho has convinced many Manchester United fans that he is defying the odds but is it really true? Adam Bate on why the manager's media machinations work...
Prime Minister Theresa May has been derided for the incessant use of slogans since the launch of her election campaign. However, as with Donald Trump and his insistence on the adjective - from 'crooked Hillary' to 'crazy Bernie' - that doesn't necessarily mean it won't work. Repetition, even repetition that might not stand up to real scrutiny, resonates.
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It's a trope that's as old as literature itself. Homer's Iliad, widely regarded as the earliest work in the Western literary tradition, began life as an oral poem passed down through the generations. Hence the recurring epithets. Odysseus was resourceful. Achilles was swift-footed and Ajax was mighty. The messages are hammered home so often that they stick.
So when Jose Mourinho attempts to establish his own narrative at Manchester United, it's certainly not a new trick. It's not even new to football. Before a 2015 press conference against Liverpool, then Newcastle coach Steve McClaren used the word "confidence" on more than 30 occasions. The difference is that Mourinho has a more enthusiastic audience.
He's needed it at times during a fraught first season at Old Trafford. Despite yet another summer of vast spending, United were all but out of the title race by October and playing catch up in the race for the top four too. Five wins from his first 14 Premier League games in charge put Mourinho on the back foot and it's been a battle to claw things back ever since.
There was the EFL Cup triumph, of course, and Europa League success may follow. But even alongside a lengthy unbeaten run, they cannot entirely mask the impression that, much like Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, these celebrated super-coaches have not - on paper at least - delivered the unequivocal improvement in fortunes that might have been expected.
Yet while Guardiola has been forced to confront his own failings - "I must get better" - Mourinho has opted instead to reach for a well-thumbed playbook. As Guardiola himself once noted during his time at Barcelona, the Portuguese's press conference expertise is incomparable. "In this room," he admitted, "he is the ****ing boss, the ****ing master."
It began immediately. In his first press conference as Manchester United manager, in fact.
"I could approach this job in a defensive point of view by saying the last three years the best we did was fourth," Mourinho pointed out. But he wouldn't do that. "It would be easy and even honest and pragmatic to focus on the last three years on the fact that we don't qualify for Champions League and so on and so on," he added. But he wouldn't be mentioning it.
Mourinho 'very happy' with draw
Jose Mourinho claimed to be 'very happy' with Manchester United's 1-1 draw with Swansea.
The noises about the club's pre-season tour to China came soon after. The reminders of the problems caused by United's involvement in the Europa League quickly followed. They have not stopped. If the club goes all the way to the final in Stockholm, they will end up playing 64 matches this season. "You can say that is an unfair fight," said Mourinho recently.
That has been a go-to explanation for United's difficulties throughout the season and one, of course, that's not without substance. And yet, it's worth noting that there is considerably more sympathy for Mourinho's fixture list complaints than there ever were for Louis van Gaal's as he led United to FA Cup success last year. They played 59 games that season too.
Mourinho has sold the notion that United are defying the odds in a way that Van Gaal never could.
"You're punished because you are doing well," he argued at the weekend. "This is the ninth match of April. It is not human." But it is also the same number of games that Champions League semi-finalists Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Monaco played. The same number as double chasing Barcelona and German giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
Domestically, five of the Tottenham outfield players who destroyed Arsenal on Sunday started seven games in April. Only three of the United players who struggled against Swansea registered that many starts in the month. No matter that United also have the most expensively-assembled squad in the history of football.
For Mourinho, the deck was nevertheless loaded against them from the start. And when they got on the pitch, United were confronted by goalkeeping heroics and poor refereeing. More recently, it's injuries that have scuppered them. An issue that garnered rather less sympathy for Van Gaal last season when without 14 senior players in February 2016.
When Chris Smalling declared himself unavailable recently, Mourinho criticised last season's players' player of the year for being too cautious. The reaction? Smalling's public praise of his team-mates for winning in his absence was greeted with a barrage of abuse from the club's own fans. Further indication that Mourinho's message is the one hitting home.
Perhaps that's just his style of man management. Certainly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Luke Shaw have shown signs of responding in the right way. But it's not managing players that's been Mourinho's greatest strength at United so far. It's not even managing upwards or managing the media. Managing the fans is the aspect of the job that he has truly mastered.
And yet, just as the electorate won't accept the idea that they are the ones being played, do not expect Manchester United supporters to acknowledge that they are acquiescing to another person's narrative either. Mourinho's own brand of strong and stable leadership will endure despite the moderate results. Expect this mantra of repetition to continue.