Why is José Mourinho going into classic Mourinho mode?
Why, when all is going well, has he mentioned PSG and taken a swipe at Antonio Conte?
A creditable goalless draw at Liverpool, a solid away win in the Champions League at Benfica, an is-he-or-isn’t-he flirtation with Paris Saint-Germain, a refusal to commit his long-term future to Manchester United and, finally, a hand grenade lobbed towards those managers who “cry about injuries” unlike him.
This has been a classic week for José Mourinho. The question, though, is why? Or why now? Why is the 54-year-old, whose team are flying through the early stages of the season, doing and saying things that he does not seem to need to?
Mourinho’s side are second in the Premier League after eight games, lead their Champions League group with maximum points, have scored 33 times in all competitions and remain unbeaten.
Yet at the weekend Mourinho was praising PSG’s “magic, quality, youth”. Then there was a statement that he would not finish his career at Old Trafford. When quizzed about this in Lisbon before the game against Benfica he said: “I ask how is it possible in modern football that a manager is going to last 15 or 20 years?”
However, during the summer tour of the US he suggested precisely this: “I am ready for the next 15 [years], I would say. Here? Yes, why not? After David [Moyes]and Mr Van Gaal, I come to my second year and hopefully I can stay and give that stability that the club wants.”
Mourinho’s criticism of other managers came on Wednesday night after United’s 1-0 victory at the Estádio da Luz. He was in relaxed form, discussing how his team lead their group with nine points. These have come at the cost of only one goal and this, plus the stalemate at Anfield, moved Mourinho to suggest that being accomplished defensively can feel like a “crime”.
The reporters in the room seized on the comment and so it was put to the Portuguese whether he thought his side were unfairly maligned. Then came vintage Mourinho: “With other managers, with other players, I’m pretty sure that, yes, [they get an easier ride than me]. But that’s not the problem for us and there is another situation maybe I’m guilty of, I never speak about injuries. Other managers cry and cry and cry – I don’t cry.”
The sense was that this was a catch-all statement, aimed scattergun at whichever manager felt they were the target. A thousand miles away at Stamford Bridge, Antonio Conte, who had just overseen a 3-3 draw with Roma, provided the bullseye. Instead of neatly sidestepping Mourinho’s comments, the Italian reacted precisely how United’s manager might have hoped. “If he is speaking about me, I think he has to think about his team and start looking at himself, not others,” Conte said. “I think that, a lot of times, Mourinho [likes to concentrate on] what is happening at Chelsea. A lot of times, also last season. [He has]to think about his team.”
Mourinho, a very intelligent man, calculates every comment he makes to the media. He will know there is a perception that he can be a serial complainer about injuries. In fact, after claiming he did not cry about not having players available he went on to list those who are injured at the moment: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Marcos Rojo and Marouane Fellaini.
Conte should have laughed off the barbs. Instead he became Mourinho’s latest victim and was left looking like a man feeling the pressure of his side having not won for three weeks and who fell hook, line and sinker for the bait.
It is difficult to answer why the United manager is having the week he is having at precisely this time. The PSG comments might well have been about jockeying for the lucrative pay rise he wants from United – he is keen on vastly improved terms on the contract that expires in the summer of 2019 – but whatever the main reason behind Mourinho’s behaviour, it does not seem to be hurting United. And this, perhaps, is one of the advantages of his public strategy: it allows the players to just play.