Even when he was truly special, Jose Mourinho always took greatest pride in those moments when he could drag opponents down to his level. At Manchester United, where everyone is a potential opponent, he is trying to do the same.
The raffish charm of his Porto-Chelsea-Inter heyday is long abandoned, the salt and pepper hair on its way to turning white. And everyone must feel the brunt of his fading powers: the United board, specifically Ed Woodward, his players, including many of those he brought to the club, and the media, even those who have been his cheerleaders in the past.
The fight will probably never desert him and a confidence trick is being played at United. Fans are being kept onside and many are sticking with him even when the evidence suggests a regime approaching imminent collapse. In this era of populist politics, where monied members of the establishment pretend to be the voice of the people, he has retained a similar ability to connect with a sizeable contingent of United fans.
Old Trafford has yet to turn on him. There has been no “Two-and-a-half years of excuses and it’s still crap, Jose” banner waving in the Stretford End. It was Paul Pogba who received a chorus of boos during Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal rather than the manager who has a half-billion-pound team languishing 18 points off City and eighth in the league table. He is still far more popular than David Moyes and Louis van Gaal were for the majority of their tenure and is on course for a lower league position than that which both were sacked for dropping to.
Mourinho knows the moment the stadium becomes “Cold Trafford” is usually the end, as it was for the likes of Frank O’Farrell, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson in the pre-Ferguson years, and both Moyes and Van Gaal.
He has barely missed a beat in his dealings with fans in recent months.
Where previously he had called for a better atmosphere, he has expressed understanding of the faithful, shrugged his shoulders and agreed that the overpaid millionaires really ought to be playing better for the red shirt. It is a viewpoint that has many takers. Somehow, the multimillionaire manager who was born into a footballing family has convinced fans he too is one of the huddled masses, a warrior of the light talking their language.
“There is no space for players who don’t give their all,” he wrote in Wednesday’s programme notes. The likes of Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Eric Bailly, Anthony Martial have taken public blame. In fact, just about every player has aside from Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay, and even they have had to line up in unfamiliar positions. Mourinho makes frequent tactical and selectional contortions, with seven changes for Arsenal, and none of them have resulted in an improvement.
Woodward is painted as the villain of the piece, having pulled up the transfer drawbridge after a net spend of just over £300m. Fred, who may well turn out to Mourinho’s last major signing and cost £51m, has become United’s latest disappearing act. With no hint of injury, the Brazilian was not considered for the matchday squad that faced Arsenal.
And while Alexis Sanchez is now injured, he has been almost as invisible as Fred since joining in January.
How long can the distractions sustain? While 2-2 with Arsenal was a decent result against an in-form opponent, it did little to suggest that United will suddenly lift from the footballing sludge served up most weeks. Even David de Gea, unimpeachable through United’s five-year slump, has started to make mistakes.
The best United players on show against Arsenal were Eric Bailly, previously banished from the team, Marcos Rojo, making his first appearance of the season and Jesse Lingard, one of those whose lack of maturity has been criticised by the manager. Mourinho’s motivational techniques move in the most mysterious of ways and amid United’s aimless, patternless play, few look to be playing for the manager.
At Chelsea, the downward spiral ended in the December of 2015, though under a far more trigger-happy ownership regime; Roman Abramovich decided for the second time that Stamford Bridge wasn’t big enough for both of them.
“We want our Chelsea back!” sang fans outraged at the departure of a manager who had once defined their club but within eight months were hailing Antonio Conte, harnessing much the same squad and on the way to winning another Premier League title. The revisionism came quickly, and while Mourinho’s golden years are fondly recalled, the cult of personality is not lamented.
He may not be so warmly remembered when the end comes at United but for now the confidence trick continues.