Ken Early: Victim role is a perfect fit for José Mourinho
Master propagandist busy painting Woodward and United hierarchy into an awkward spot
José Mourinho: claims he is the victim of a ‘manhunt’ as speculation about his future at Old Trafford mounts. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty
Never mind the quality, feel the drama.
On Friday night, the Daily Mirror had reported that José Mourinho was set to be sacked no matter what the result of Manchester United’s match against Newcastle on Saturday. That United’s board had apparently decided that what happened against Newcastle wouldn’t matter made a certain kind of sense. Few people expected much from the match, let alone that it would turn out to be one of the most memorable games of the season.
And yet: “in football, results fix almost everything.” Such was Juan Mata’s verdict on a 3-2 win that demonstrated to the board that pushing ahead with the decision to fire Mourinho would be fraught with political complications.
The team had responded to the whirl of intrigue surrounding their manager by making their worst-ever start to a Premier League game at Old Trafford, conceding twice in the opening 10 minutes to a team that had scored four goals in 630 league minutes up to that point.
The Newcastle fans gleefully sang the name of his old rival Rafael Benitez. If this was to be Mourinho’s last game in charge it was proving a memorable one.
But the most noteworthy development of the first half occurred not on the pitch but in the stands. United’s supporters, witnessing a performance of cringeworthy incompetence, might have been expected to turn on the manager. Instead they sang their support for him: “José’s right, the board are shite”.
It was becoming an uncomfortable afternoon for Ed Woodward, the man who had reportedly decided that Mourinho’s time was up. Woodward has sacked two managers before in his five years as United’s executive vice-chairman, but neither David Moyes nor Louis van Gaal had ever made him out to be part of the problem, at least while they were still working at the club.
In Mourinho he is dealing with a different kind of operator, a master propagandist who has managed to persuade many of the fans that no manager could reasonably be expected to do better in the meagre circumstances in which Woodward has forced him to work. The fact that since Mourinho arrived, Woodward has provided him with the biggest wage bill and the second-largest investment on transfers in English football is irrelevant.
Mourinho understands that feelings invariably get the better of facts, and it has helped that he has been able to tap into a latent reservoir of resentment towards Woodward and the Glazer ownership he represents.
The Glazer regime remains rightly unpopular; it is difficult for anyone to make a persuasive case that United have gained anything by paying so dearly for the privilege of being owned by the American family.
You could point to the club’s phenomenal revenue growth since the takeover, but Manchester United had been commercial leaders in football long before the Glazers turned up; indeed it was this very quality that attracted them in the first place.
If Woodward and the board had indeed decided that Mourinho should be sacked, they would have watched the second half with mounting horror.
For the first few minutes of the half, with the substitute Marouane Fellaini competing for high balls up front and Paul Pogba moved back into a three-man defence, United looked as confused and farcical as at any point since the retirement of Alex Ferguson.
But then, unexpectedly, Pogba started to impose himself on the game. It became apparent that the improvised sweeper role suited him very well – he could receive possession unmarked, look up to get a picture of the game, and dribble forward to play telling passes. He ended up in the box to make crucial passes in the build-up to United’s equalising and winning goals.
Mourinho explained that the comeback was due to the “mentality, desire and commitment” of his players, but did not say why these qualities only kicked in after half-time, being entirely absent from United’s pitiful first-half showing.
He omitted to mention the most powerful psychological factor of all: sheer desperation. The prospect of losing to arguably the worst team in the league in front of a home crowd of more than 70,000 people has a powerful way of focusing the mind.
This is not the first time that the imminent threat of total humiliation has had a miraculous effect on United’s attacking game: their best result under Mourinho to date was the 2-3 win at Manchester City last season, another Pogba-inspired comeback from 2-0 down at half-time.
It’s not that the players try harder when facing almost certain defeat, it’s that they take risks they would not otherwise take. They leave spaces at the back and push additional men into the box. In other words, they seem to be at their best when they are forced to discard Mourinho’s usual tactics.
Afterwards Mourinho spoke sadly about the wickedness at the heart of modern football, and in a Trump-like flourish painted himself as the victim of a “manhunt”. Drama is his element.
To see him move from camera to camera, repeating the same line about people blaming him if it rains in London, with the same wounded pout, was to be reminded of how hopelessly outgunned Woodward is in the battle for hearts and minds.
Woodward could go ahead and sack Mourinho this week, but he will find it more difficult to be rid of the image of the Mourinho-that-might-have-been, the proven serial winner of legend, who could and would have delivered the success United crave, if only the board had given him the tools to do the job.