Those Manchester United fans still backing Jose Mourinho probably feel much better about mask mandates and social distancing after Tottenham Hotspur dropped their 2020/21 Premier League season opener to Everton on Sunday afternoon. It’s easier to hide.
The 0-1 defeat took place in North London. Prior to the loss, Jose was unbeaten at home by a Toffees squad. After losing their first two meetings when Ancelotti was in charge at Milan and the Portuguese led first Porto then Inter, Mourinho had beaten the Great and Powerful Eyebrow four times on the trot.
In keeping with another recent Mourinho career trend, however, Everton’s goal came from a poorly defended set-piece. Eric Dier, a defensive midfielder undergoing a conversion to centre-half, failed to adequately defend Lucas Digne’s wide delivery, allowing Dominic Calvert-Lewin an essentially free header which the Toffees’ No. 9 authoritatively placed into the near corner of the helpless Hugo Lloris’ goal.
Critics of the Special One (hand raised) may label his man-management style toxic given the endless feuds he waged in his three previous posts before joining Spurs. The jury remains out with the Lily Whites, even though club physios spent the hours after Jose’s latest post-match presser treating squad members who’d been pulled out from under idling double-deckers in the Tottenham Stadium car park.
One thing Old Trafford Mou haters cannot do, though, is deny the man’s defensive accomplishments in his two full seasons with the Reds. Under his leadership (or whip, take your choice), rearguards dominated by the likes of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof were unrivaled over those 76 Premier League games, surrendering just 57 goals, 29 in 2016/17 and 28 in 17/18. Unfortunately, in the 17 games of his abbreviated 2018/19 session, the Reds shipped goals like Amazon does packages, allowing Premier League opponents to breach their defenses 29 times in less than half a campaign. Mourinho largely corrected that aberration over 26 matches with Spurs last term, his squad yielding 30 goals once he took charge.
Although better, it wasn’t his best work and, judging by the Everton result, remains incomplete. But football is cyclical and managers must adjust to the times. Yes, defending still wins titles. One need only review Liverpool’s 2019/20 record before COVID interrupted the campaign to confirm that. Yet, squads across Europe play far more openly. Up and down the table, they attack relentlessly. No matter how well you defend, the more time you spend doing it, the more you will concede. It’s a fact of life with which Jose has yet to come to terms.
He will tell you he can play attacking football and it’s true. He did so at Real Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo scored more goals (168 in 164 appearances) under Mourinho than any other manager, including Sir Alex Ferguson. Admittedly, CR7 was slightly better (112G/101App) under Carlo Ancellotti but the fact remains Los Blancos scored 325 Primera Liga goals in Mou’s three seasons, more than any comparable spell in the Spanish capital. His title-winning 2011-12 side retains the club record for goals in a domestic campaign with 121.
The logical question then, is why didn’t Jose replicate that style with Chelsea and Manchester United? The short answer is he was free to do as he pleased with the Blues and Reds and he prefers to defend.
At the Santiago Bernabeu, players held all the power. Even though he came out on top in the feud with club captain Iker Casillas, his decision to drop the club and Spanish National Team captain backed by Ancelotti, the successor who defeated him on Sunday, Sergio Ramos and the more discreet Ronaldo still held club president Florentino Pérez’s ear. They were not going to abandon their attacking zeal for any manager.
At Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, Mourinho had greater recruiting power, not to mention a fanbase willing to embrace his philosophy and side with him over stars like Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, David Luiz and Paul Pogba. He was able to bench Pogba, something he never could have done with Ronaldo, in favour of an eager but unproven Scott McTominay.
While the Frenchman is a midfielder, not a centre-forward, and lacks the CV and starpower of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, the world saw what he could do when given freedom by Didier Deschamps in Russia in 2018. Even Monsieur Labile’s detractors in the Stretford End cannot deny their club is more dangerous with him in the lineup.
In North London, meanwhile, fans must be worried about the supply line to Harry Kane and Heung-min Son with Christian Eriksen departed and Giovanni Lo Celso injured. The manager started the staid tandem of Harry Winks and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in central midfield and turned to Moussa Sissoko’s steel when Dele Alli’s silk was unavailable for the second half.
In his first two Bernabeu campaigns, Mourinho could call on another technical savant, Kaka, if either Xabi Alonso or Mesut Ozil weren’t fit. In his third season, Luka Modric, the first player not named Ronaldo or Messi to win the Ballon d’Or in a decade, replaced the Brazilian who happens to be the last.
To be fair to Mourinho, the Portuguese attempted to emulate the Merengues’ transfer policy when he arrived at Old Trafford, recruiting two astoundingly creative players in Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba. Unfortunately, there was no one in the United executive with either the football nous or strength of character to prevent him from attempting to deconstruct the duo and rebuild them in his footballing image. Arguably, Jose’s bullying tactics derailed the Armenian’s promising career while many Red Devils faithful will tell you Pogba’s Manchester career is yet to leave the station.
If Spurs’ bland midfield and blunt attack against Everton are indicative of the season to come, United fans should count their blessings to employ a manager interested in filling his starting lineup with vibrant players like Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Donny van de Beek and Bruno Fernandes. There is no dark cloud hovering over Old Trafford anymore. It has moved 200 miles to the south and east.