For a man who forever seems at odds with those armed with a notepad and a dictaphone, Jose Mourinho is still, even as his hair has greyed and his mood darkened, a master at controlling the media narrative. It may have seemed at times that the spin was getting away from the Manchester United manager, but more often than not that spin is his.
Few speak of United’s defensive frailties anymore, for instance. They talk of how the club failed to sign Mourinho the centre back he wanted in the summer. When the Old Trafford side were struggling to find traction in the early part of the season, not so much was spoken of tactics and strategy, but of the suspiciously public training ground spat between Mourinho and Paul Pogba.
It’s almost Trumpian in its cynicism, with Mourinho frequently drawing the eye away from where it wants it not to wander. The Portuguese didn’t need to distract away from his side’s comprehensive derby defeat to Manchester City on Sunday, though. His excuses had already been made. He’d been making it for months.
Mourinho’s grip on the media rhetoric has achieved much over the years, but his greatest trick has seen him persuade Man Utd fans this season that he is making the best of their current situation, that he is getting the most out of their squad, when he clearly isn’t. Sunday’s game at the Etihad demonstrated this.
Having seen his side dismantled at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s Premier League pace-setters, Mourinho was quick to denounce the statisticians who chart his decline. That was little wonder given how poorly the numbers read for him this season. This is the lowest Man Utd have sat in the table at this stage of a Premier League season.
They are the only team in the top half with a negative goal difference, while Fulham are the only side to have kept fewer clean sheets. United have scored fewer goals in open play than Watford this season and have conceded as many shots as Huddersfield. There are more statistics like this. Many more.
Even anecdotally, though, can Mourinho really claim, in good faith, to be getting the best out of his team? United secured symbolic victories over City by signing both Alexis Sanchez and Fred ahead of their rivals, and yet the two players sat on the bench for Sunday’s derby. The case of Sanchez, previously one of the best players in England, now a shadow of his former self, is almost enough to compromise Mourinho’s argument in itself.
It’s not just Sanchez, though. It’s Victor Lindelof. It’s Eric Bailly. It’s Nemanja Matic. It’s Pogba. It’s Anthony Martial, despite his recent good run of form. It’s Romelu Lukaku. It’s Marcus Rashford. From front to back, left to right, Man Utd are a team of unfulfilled talent.
There is not a team in Europe as wasteful as Mourinho’s have been over the past two-and-a-half seasons.
Manchester United are a baffling contradiction of a team under Mourinho. They possess great quality and are capable of pulling off great moments – see the second half comeback against City in last April’s derby as well as the late comeback against Juventus in the Champions League last week.
And yet there is no personality, no heart to this United team. No central purpose. Man City and Liverpool, under their current managers, stand for something. Can the same be said of the Old Trafford outfit right now? What do they stand for? What do they represent? Instead, what Mourinho has built in two-and-a-half seasons is hollow.
There has been an upturn in recent weeks. The slide that not so long ago looked terminal for Mourinho has slowed somewhat, even if it is still sustained. Any improvement has been incremental, though, not fundamental. There’s only so many more Manchester derbies Mourinho can endure before his spin and arguments wear thin and the fans see his reign for what it is.