Ken Early: Mourinho’s shock therapy isn’t enough
He blamed players for Manchester United’s defeat, but what about his own approach?
“The Return”, Guess Who’s Back, I’m Coming Home, and so on. If you didn’t know better you’d have assumed that the match at Stamford Bridge yesterday evening was all about one very special individual called José Mourinho.
The 4-0 defeat inflicted on Mourinho’s team is therefore hard to compute. A manager this great cannot suffer a beating on this scale without an enormous quantity of blame needing to be distributed.
Mourinho was clear that responsibility lay with the players who committed mistakes. “We made an incredible defensive mistake, I say incredible in capitals, in the first minute and then the game is different.” Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and David de Gea each made mistakes in the passage of play that led to Pedro’s goal after 30 seconds – Smalling letting a ball go past him that he could have intercepted, Blind letting Pedro run off the blind side, de Gea gambling that he could reach the ball before the Chelsea winger and losing.
De Gea left nobody in any doubt as to who he thought was to blame, sarcastically pointing to his eye to indicate that Blind needed to be more aware of what was happening around him.
Conservative game plan
But, contra Mourinho, the game was no different after the goal. The game continued exactly as before – or at least United’s approach to it did. They kept going with the conservative game plan they had begun with, the same plan that had got them a goalless draw last week at Anfield. They persevered with a solid line of six across the back featuring Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard pulled back as auxiliary fullbacks, as though they didn’t realise that it was already 1-0. If Mourinho had an idea of how to wrestle back the initiative, he wasn’t sharing it.
Half-time brought reorganisation – with Rashford moving to the middle and Mata replacing the flailing Fellaini – but no improvement. Last week Mourinho had greeted the draw at Liverpool with a flash of triumphalism, telling Sky Sports: “They’re not the last wonder of the world, like you’ve been saying.”
Yesterday’s result gave him no such opportunity to mock the opposition. Instead he was forced to adopt a philosophical tone, insisting that, other than the four goals his team conceded, it was not a bad performance: “If we could delete the defensive mistakes, the globality was good.”
But as everyone could see, the globality was not good. Paul Pogba again wandered around like a ghost. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is experiencing his longest league goal drought in a decade. Even Marcus Rashford seems to be losing confidence. No United player could come off the field feeling that they had played well.
The 4-0 scoreline made it Mourinho’s worst defeat since Barcelona put five past his Real Madrid side in that immortal clásico six years ago. His response to that defeat was to increase the pressure on his players in the hope of sparking an aggressive response. Karim Benzema was heavily criticised both internally and externally, while the tactics became more “pragmatic”; which is to say conservative.
On the evidence of what happened at Madrid, the atmosphere at United’s training ground is about to get a lot less convivial. Mourinho’s brand is built on success, and if there cannot be success then there must be scapegoats.
The concern from Mourinho’s point of view is that he has already tried quite a lot of shock therapy without positive effects. Bastian Schweinsteiger was discarded before the season started. Anthony Martial has become a bench player. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Luke Shaw were publicly criticised and dropped. Ultimately even Wayne Rooney was dropped.
Under normal circumstances a 4-0 defeat to a rival team would demand that somebody be thrown under the bus, but with barely a quarter of the season completed, United are already running out of room under there. Further shock therapy now would have a disturbing overtone of “the beatings will continue until morale improves”. There are also practical considerations to be taken into account. Mourinho could not have been impressed with the defending of Blind and Smalling, but Eric Bailly came off with injured knee ligaments. With his options at centre-back already depleted, he will probably have to stick with Blind and Smalling in the short term whether he likes it or not.
Mourinho’s successful teams at Porto, Chelsea and Inter often gave the impression they loved him, but there’s no sign of that from these players. Mourinho would probably agree it’s better to be feared than loved, but if he can’t punish a couple of his players pour encourager les autres, what other motivational tools does he have?
Now that Mourinho has a worse record over his first 14 matches than either David Moyes or Louis van Gaal, the idea that he could effect an immediate transformation at United through the sheer force of his charisma has been exposed as nonsense.
The focus should now be on Mourinho’s coaching. What evidence is there that he is helping his players to get better? A few weeks ago he complained that it was hard work getting his players to unlearn the patterns of play they had been absorbing for two seasons under Louis van Gaal. As yet, we haven’t seen any signs that he has a better plan of his own.