Ken Early: Tragedy of Mourinho is that he has become a bore
We used to follow the drama he created avidly. But we’ve seen this movie before
This season Manchester United find themselves already trailing rivals they look ill-equipped to overtake. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
It used to be said of José Mourinho that the media loved him because he made their jobs so easy. His press conferences and interviews delivered pre-crafted narratives that spared journalists the effort of having to figure out the story for themselves, and his discourse was peppered with the sort of memorable phrases and devastating put-downs that wrote the newspapers’ headlines for them.
These days writing about Mourinho feels more like having to analyse the stale contrivances of a once-popular TV show that has dragged on two or three seasons too long. Even criticising it feels futile because you sense that people have stopped caring.
We can surmise from all the unpleasant things Mourinho said about Arsène Wenger (“voyeur”, “specialist in failure” and so on) that he would not enjoy being compared with him, but his regime at Manchester United has started to feel like the last few years of Wenger’s time at Arsenal. It wasn’t working, everyone knew it wasn’t working, the reasons why it wasn’t working had been talked to death and long before it finally sputtered to an end it had started to feel like there was nothing more to say.
That is the tragedy of late Mourinho: he’s become a bore. You could try to analyse the meaning of his Friday press conference. You could wonder why he decided to turn up half an hour early and fob off the questions with a series of brusque non-answers. You could point out that when he spoke about what he wants from his team – “We want to play well all the time. We don’t want to make mistakes. That is what you always want. We want a winning style. Don’t make defensive mistakes. Be dominant. Chances, score goals and go home with the three points” – he seemed to overemphasise the importance of avoiding mistakes, while giving little insight into what he might like to see his players try to do in a positive sense. You could wonder whether he can really believe himself when he says something like “In my career I was never selfish and thinking about myself. I was always a club man.”
But such speculations would scarcely seem relevant. The important facts are known to everyone. Two years ago Mourinho agreed to take over at Manchester United just as Pep Guardiola was taking over at Manchester City. Woodward hailed him as “simply the best manager in the game”. As a physics graduate, Woodward would have appreciated that the contest that was about to take place between Mourinho and Guardiola was about as close as you can get in reality to a laboratory-style experiment to determine who was the better manager.
The results are already in. City under Guardiola have played football that has not been seen in the Premier League before, setting new records for passes, goals and points. United under Mourinho have laboured with an outdated style of football that doesn’t make any sense for a club with their great traditions and resources.
The suggestion that Mourinho’s style is “outdated” might spark indignation in the dwindling ranks of José loyalists. As Diego Simeone is always saying, there is more than one way to play football. Not everybody has to pass the ball 900 times like Man City; there is also room for the defend-and-counter style of Atletico. Fashions change, but the aim of the game remains the same: the game is there to be won. How, then, can it make sense to describe any particular style as “outdated”?
The reason is simply that Mourinho’s conservative style of play does not make the most of the athletic capacity of the modern footballer. Today’s top-level players are surrounded by a doting support structure of doctors and physios and nutritionists whose lives are dedicated to the single mission of getting them in peak physical condition to perform. This means they can run faster and further than they could in the days when players would take to the pitch with bellies full of steak and chips.
Mourinho’s tactics are more appropriate to the era when players were encouraged to “run off” muscle injuries after a blast of magic spray and a reassuring pat on the arse. The team sits in a deep defensive block, the midfielders are not encouraged to run beyond the ball for fear of leaving gaps, the full-backs know their first duty is to maintain the compact shape of the defence. The result is that United under Mourinho have routinely been at or close to the bottom of the table for collective distance covered. While teams that are built to run, such as tonight’s opponents, Tottenham, will routinely run 118km in a match, United’s average is closer to 107km.
Outrun by Panama
International football is played at a much lower intensity than the Premier League, but even Panama, the worst side at the 2018 World Cup, averaged 97km per match over their three games: less than anyone else in the tournament, but still more than United managed at Brighton, where they covered a shockingly low 95km in their 3-2 defeat.
United last lost at Brighton as recently as May, and after that match Mourinho delivered some scathing criticism of his players, suggesting that maybe now people would stop asking him why he always picked Romelu Lukaku. If this sort of talk was meant to motivate the players, it seems to have backfired. After the latest defeat, the most withering words were spoken by Brighton’s defender Leon Balogun, who said he was surprised at how slowly United played, and that Brighton were expecting a much tougher game at Liverpool the following weekend.
Whenever Mourinho has won the league, his side has exploded out of the blocks and led the race all the way. This season they find themselves already trailing rivals they look ill-equipped to overtake. And the talk around the club is all about transfer targets not pursued, egotistical players who think they’re better than they are. There was a time when we might have followed this intrigue avidly. But we’ve seen this movie before. We already know how it ends. The only question anyone cares about now is how long before we are reading the statement from Ed Woodward thanking Mourinho for everything he has done and wishing him the best of luck for the future.