MANCHESTER — His eyes fixated on the journalist sat in the corner of the press room at Old Trafford. He held three fingers aloft. He demanded “respect, respect” as he stormed out of the press conference room after letting everyone know how many Premier League titles he had won (three, in case you didn’t know).
This feels like the moment when Jose Mourinho finally flipped given all of the criticism and all of the negativity swirling around his Manchester United side.
Not to sound like a kid in a schoolyard but, well, he started this. Some of the criticism he has received is unfair given his record of winning trophies at some of the biggest clubs on the planet. But this is the here and now we are talking about, Jose.
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At the start of their preseason tour in the United States this summer Mourinho spoke about a tough season ahead as he presumably tried to cajole the board, mainly executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, into action in the transfer market. Despite handing Mourinho a new long-term contract in January 2018, that didn’t happen as new center backs failed to arrive with combative midfielder Fred the only major signing. But Mourinho has still spent the second-highest amount on transfer fees since he arrived at United in 2016, so perhaps his previous buys persuaded Woodward that he’d keep his cash in the bank, for now.
Despite Mourinho’s spending there is no clear identity, no real plan for the way he is setting up his United team every time they step on the pitch. Pep Guardiola has it at Man City and so does Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham. Mourinho seems to be muddled in his tactical approach, with his players unsure what the real message is each time they step out onto the pitch.
With the negativity spreading to his players and the majority of the fans, Mourinho is now asking for “respect” and demanding journalists to stop asking him questions about defenders making horrendous mistakes because United played well for the first 45 minutes against Spurs.
The respect he is craving from the media and the wider public wasn’t afforded to his players this summer. Yes, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof in particular may not be good enough to play week in, week out for United but the huge mistakes they’re making are a product of doubts creeping into their minds about their manager, the way they’re being asked to play and all of the madness Mourinho has whipped up.
He’s a master of creating a siege mentality but the other inmates, his players, are being housed in a different asylum. They are not on the same page.
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But what now? Where does this leave Mourinho and, more importantly, United?
The most important thing is that he now goes back to basics. Part of his rant on Monday involved asking journalists whether playing well or getting results mattered more.
“When I win matches, I come here many times and you are not happy I won matches and you say the most important thing is the way of playing. You have to make the decision. I need to know from you what is the most important thing. To play well and play offensively? Or to win matches?” Mourinho asked, rhetorically.
He’s a man who has been hammered time and time again for being pragmatic but getting results. He grinds out wins. He wins trophies. He’s even won trophies at United that way in 2016-17. So, he has to go back to that system. He tried to play a more attacking way, with a 3-5-1-1 formation ripping Tottenham apart at times in the first half but United were so susceptible to counterattacks. Mourinho is trying to adapt his tactics but can he complete that transformation into the modern era of high-pressing and five-man defenses quickly transitioning into attackers?
Mourinho claimed United won the “tactical and strategic” battle against Tottenham on Monday and for the first half they did. And maybe that is the way Mourinho now wants to play, to be more open and hope that the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and others take their chances when they fall to them.
The safer option, and the route Mourinho will probably go down, is reverting to type. A solid 4-3-3 (4-5-1 when defending) and playing off Lukaku as the targetman as the rest of the team stay in their shape and try to get crosses from out wide as soon as they can. Those tactics delivered the League Cup and Europa League in Mourinho’s first season at United but his ideas were new, the players were more eager to adapt to his way of playing.
Now, as he enters the meaty part of his third season in charge at United, his players are questioning not only Mourinho’s tactics but his man-management as he’s fallen out and criticized many of them by now.
Therein lies the magic of Mourinho’s third-season syndrome. His abrasive, aggressive nature gets results for the first few years at a club but then, unless he adapts his methods, everything starts to turn against him. Speak to employees of Chelsea, Real Madrid or now United. They have eerily similar stories and this situation is eerily similar to what happened at Chelsea in 2015.
Mourinho must adapt his tactics and his attitude if he’s going to turn this around at United. The likelihood is that he won’t do either and that means more pain is on the horizon for the Red Devils.