The long knives are out for Jose Mourinho. The Guardians Barney Ronay wrote that Mourinho gooses is cooked as a force the Champions League.
We will see!
“ There was a slightly ghostly moment in the second half at Old Trafford as Manchester United were euthanised from the Champions Leagueknockout stages, a sense of worlds colliding, timelines crossed.
Wissam Ben Yedder had just eased the ball into the corner of David de Gea’s net to make the score 1-0 on the night. As the Sevilla players romped in front of their away support and the Spanish radio commentator broke out of his “gol, gol” chant to shout “ON FIRE ON FIRE” a wiry black-clad figure could be seen sprinting down the touchline, fists pumping.
It was tempting to blink a little at this ghost of Old Trafford, rattling its chains, howling at the portal doors, breaking though, just for a moment, into our world. Like all good cinematic ghosts it seemed to be trying to communicate something: desperation, excitement, the need for United’s players to regroup. And beyond that a sense of something more profound being lost than just a quarter-final spot at the hands of a balanced and deserving Sevilla.
Naturally there were painful echoes of that famous sprint down the same touchline 14 years ago, back when the world was still young, the Mourinho hair a chestnut bouffant, and when Porto’s young manager was announcing his arrival as a Champions League force. Rather than, as on this occasion, his departure.
It will be tempting to resist the cliched circularity of those two sprints, bookends on the José supremacy. But the facts are hard to argue with. And the facts say that when it comes to the real cutting edge of European club football Mourinho is pretty much cooked, his best moments – Inter, Porto – already yellowing at the edges, marked by the baggy gear and dated grooming of a world that has now passed.
As of Tuesday night it is almost exactly four years since Mourinho last managed a club to victory in the Champions League knockout stages. In his past 10 knockout games with United and Chelsea he has two wins and five low-score draws.
Look a bit closer and even those two moments of triumph didn’t really point anywhere, the last one the ambush of Paris Saint-Germain at Stamford Bridge, when a late airborne siege turned a tie Chelsea were losing. The other was Didier Drogba’s return to Chelsea with Galatasaray, when a cunningly mawkish welcome back ceremony seemed to spook the visitors and Chelsea went 1-0 up after four minutes.
Look even further to his last year at Real Madrid and it is unsurprising Mourinho was so keen to dwell this week on his elimination of United at Old Trafford in 2013. That 2-1 victory, almost exactly five years ago, was the last time he oversaw an away win in the knockout stages. Even then Madrid were going out before Nani was sent off.
At the end of which, under the De Boer formula, you could make a case, factoring in millions spent and clubs managed (all three winners in recent years, just not under him) that Mourinho is unusually bad at negotiating the sharp end of this competition. That he is, with two wins in 10 and everything from funds to pedigree in his favour, the worst manager in the past 10 years of the Champions League knockout stages.
Too much? Probably. But the real issue is not his place in the hierarchy of knockout failure. Instead it is Mourinho’s dogged persistence with an approach that, frankly, no longer works at this level. This was another startling element to Tuesday night. Play the game again, play on for five hours into the night and United still wouldn’t have looked like winning. The obstacle here wasn’t details or form, but a fixed-gear defensive approach in a must-win game at home to the fifth-best team in Spain.
This is not to suggest Mourinho’s methods are failing at United. Winning defensive football is still winning football. United are better than when he came, and will be better still in a year.
It is more a question of whether Mourinho still has the will and the methods to cut it in one-off, fine-point knockout games against the very best.
Right now he appears to be doing what he did at Porto and Inter on such occasions, looking to attack an opponent’s strengths rather than its weaknesses, to win by nullifying space rather than using it to create. There is an element of the Peter Principle in this. Mourinho got so good at managing underdog teams and wringing the best out of B-list players he was allowed to manage overdog teams where his tactics no longer fit, with A-list players too good to carry out his methods with unquestioning zeal.
There have of course been wonderful attacking Mourinho teams in the past. That Madrid starting XI that beat United five years ago contained Mesut Özil, Ángel Di María, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín. The problem is that as Mourinho has retreated into his own mathematical pleasure in solidity and defensive control the world has gone the other way. And the evidence suggests it is not possible to win a Champions League in this manner now, just as a 0-0 draw away from home is no longer an advantageous result with high-scoring games more common.
The question is whether Mourinho has it in him to adapt a little, to build a next-stage United team around some key element of creative chemistry, a team that can grow to fill the spaces rather than crouching back behind its guard. For all the snarking negativity there are obvious positives. Even in defeat the sight of local talent on the pitch is heartening. Romelu Lukaku was often horribly isolated against Sevilla but he was also United’s best player.
Mourinho will get more time and money to gloss this team – but not that much more. Manchester United is a machine made for winning, a commercial-sporting juggernaut defined in part by its progress in Europe. If Mourinho has hit a buffer here then buying another Sánchez, another Pogba, won’t solve a basic issue of methodology, the point where defensive control becomes a more risky hand, less likely to bring victory than trusting his team to play in those tighter moments with a little winning freedom.”