As Jose Mourinho watched Manchester United crumble to defeat at Tottenham, he remonstrated with his players from the sidelines. This was not the way things used to be. Mourinho’s teams always found a way. At Wembley, United found nothing.
Three hundred miles north, Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle put in a decent performance against Burnley, only to be denied by goalkeeper Karl Darlow’s mishap. A draw and a single point was not satisfactory for a club in the shadow of relegation. Lifting his glasses and rubbing his eyes in trademark fashion, Benitez might have been forgiven for yearning for happier days at Liverpool.
The night before, Arsene Wenger sat stony-faced as Arsenal suffered their latest embarrassment. Arsenal mistakes helped Swansea to a 3-1 win but the relegation strugglers fully deserved their victory. These days, Wenger must accept such disappointments as a matter of course.
The trio were once three-quarters of the Premier League’s “Big Four”, Mourinho at Chelsea, Benitez at Liverpool, and Wenger with Arsenal, all duking it out with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, and competing for the biggest prizes in the game, regulars in the latter stages of the Champions League, with both Benitez and Mourinho winning that premier competition.
And yet life, as Ferris Bueller had it, comes at you pretty fast. The glory days of the 2000s are past. Mourinho, Benitez and Wenger now swim against modern football’s tides. The comfort zones they once enjoyed have been eroded.
They are bound to feel uncomfortable in their present situations. Change can be painful. Wenger, Mourinho and Benitez, three peers who never became friends, would probably agree that life was much simpler back in the 2000s.
In United, Mourinho may be at the most famous and profitable club in football yet he finds himself trailing in Manchester City’s wake. Pep Guardiola has a better team, and deeper access to funds to become yet superior. A contract extension was confirmed last week for Mourinho but is he the right manager for United?
The doubts keep arising. A combined away record at City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham of eight matches, zero wins and only a single goal scored are nothing like the results Mourinho’s Chelsea trophy machine once delivered.
Mourinho has added factors to consider that he cannot control. Manchester United is not a club where victory can be delivered in functional style. Its fans demand attacking football; even Ferguson, the ultimate winning machine, felt the lash of “attack, attack, attack” chants. At Wembley, Mourinho went against instincts and played four offensive players in Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, new signing Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard.
The manner of defeat suggested that adventurousness is unlikely to be repeated soon. United do not have the right midfielders to balance out that quartet. Paul Pogba is too much of a free spirit, and actually precisely the type of player Mourinho has clashed with in the past. Pogba’s deserved substitution at Wembley in the 63rd minute was an indication of impatience, but dropping him is risky.
Pogba’s value in financial and marketing terms means Mourinho cannot simply axe him. At United the bottom line comes first and Pogba’s presence is part of that culture. He needs to be accommodated. Mourinho cannot do as he might please.
Meanwhile, Benitez may have involved himself in tussles with Liverpool’s owners and execs a decade ago, but he never knew how good he had it until he arrived at Newcastle. He is a month away from completing two tough-going years on Tyneside and while life is not as precarious as his six months at Real Madrid, he is forced to operate to Mike Ashley’s designations. That equals no-frills and every shekel must be accounted for. Newcastle’s transfer record is still the £16 million they paid for Michael Owen in 2005.
Alan Shearer, whose £15m signing in 1996 is still the club’s second highest expenditure, took to Twitter to spell out the situation. “So over 11 seasons @NUFC net spend has been £4.5m a season. Throw in the TV money and ever present gate money…,” he said. Benitez, the manager who once so loved to play the market, must play it with penny stocks.
And Wenger, previously last man standing of the all-powerful managers club, finds his constituency shrinking. That Arsenal’s January additions, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, are Borussia Dortmund graduates points to the influence of Sven Mislintat, head of recruitment recently arrived from Dortmund. Raul Sanllehi, new head of football relations, starts at the club this month.
Wenger’s welcoming of those fresh arrivals to the back office has been somewhat lukewarm in public.
“It is a bit new and unusual,” is how he described working with Mislintat, brought to Arsenal with intentions of being around after Wenger finally moves on. Arsenal were previously tethered to Wenger’s whims, but now look to a future beyond him.