Jose Mourinho is an employed manager without a team. The Chelsea side he had led to league title glory in the 2014-15 season finally seems to have moved out of his shadows. The Manchester United team of which he took charge this summer is not moulded in his vision yet. It does not help that he seems to have blinkered eyes on. Mourinho is a leader with few acolytes at the moment.
One should be wary of writing the Portuguese manager off. Such is the scope of Mourinho’s success that it would be foolhardy to ignore his past glories. But the last 12 months suggest there is something broken in his managerial style. For a coach who earned his spurs by fielding defensively robust teams, Mourinho has overseen far too many collapses by his sides. The way his time at Chelsea unraveled last season could have been passed off as an aberration; the continuing troubles at United hint at deeper pains.
The suffering on Sunday was, arguably, more keenly felt by Mourinho as the Red Devils were thrashed by a team with whom he had failed only last year. It was the kind of performance the Portuguese manager would have dearly sought from Chelsea in those troubled months. Instead it took his counterpart Antonio Conte, for the Blues to flourish like they once did under Mourinho.
One does not need to be a “football Einstein” to see how the result tore the United manager up. Mourinho had a few words for Conte at full time, the content of which he chose to withhold from the media. But television channels had already put technology to use by then. As the match neared its conclusion, Conte demanded Chelsea’s supporters to raise their voices since it were the United fans who were dominating the sound waves. Mourinho took a dim view of the Italian manager’s ‘antics’.
He termed Conte’s actions as humiliating, claiming that to do so at 1-0 was acceptable but not when the score stood at 4-0. Now, Mourinho’s words seem like a classic diversionary tactic. But it is not far-fetched to imagine that the irascible Portuguese did not receive Conte’s actions well, even though they were hardly objectionable. But a disappointing display by United must have left Mourinho on the edge.
In his post-match comments, the 53-year-old chose to identify individual mistakes for causing the terrible defeat. However, this seems to be a developing trend. Time and again, Mourinho has picked out his players for criticism. There were obvious mistakes at the back, for all the goals, but to lay all the blame on an individual does not present the full picture. Furthermore, this is unlikely to end well.
At Real Madrid and during his second tenure at Chelsea, Mourinho’s relationship with his players was severely damaged because they felt unfairly criticised. This is in stark contrast to his first stint with the Blues when he would go out of his way to protect his players. Somewhere, Mourinho has lost the art of managing the media and earning unquestioning support from his players. It used to be one of his foremost strengths.
Conte, on the other hand, seems to be winning over Chelsea’s players. Following the losses to Liverpool and Arsenal, the Blues have worked hard to accommodate the manager’s preferred 3-4-3 formation. As seen on Sunday, when the system works well, Chelsea can run rings around the opposition. Against United, the host was full of ideas and guile. Chelsea’s players hurried past the visitors, constantly reshaping their passing combinations.
United was made to look off-pace, a side moving at a relatively laboured speed. Chelsea’s vivacity across the pitch caught Mourinho’s side out time and again. Particularly in the final third, vertical passes were launched to exploit the spaces in wide areas and behind defenders. The wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses delivered an impressive performance once again.
Winning the tactical battle against top managers used to be another of Mourinho’s strengths. But he has a tendency to make baffling choices these days. Mourinho cannot seem to determine Paul Pogba’s best position in the starting lineup while Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s continued omission remains inexplicable. United started with Pogba in the number ten role on Sunday but Juan Mata took the reins after a disastrous first-half. The former moved to a deeper position in midfield and there was a visible improvement, although no results were forthcoming.
Pogba is a player who is used to doing a bit of everything on the pitch but there seems to be a confusion over what is expected of him in this side. Furthermore, there is a stodgy approach to ball circulation. Marouane Fellaini particularly seems to operate on a different wavelength and it was not surprising to see him as the first player to be substituted at Stamford Bridge.
But it was United’s shambolic performance in its own half that stood out against Chelsea. Mourinho may justifiably claim that, in the previous match against Liverpool, it was almost the same side which put in an impressive defensive display. But it would be foolhardy to disregard that the rot runs deeper than just one bad day.
The back four remains a work in progress. One does wonder whether Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind can be a part of this backline in the long run. But spending money is not a sure-shot recipe for success, as United has discovered this summer. Unless the manager can work out a system that brings out the best from his players, even the world’s most expensive footballer can be made to look foolish.
Before Mourinho again blames someone for his team’s current problems, he needs to reflect on his own practice. At least publicly, the manager is loath to admit that jadedness seems to have set in his methods. This is not to say that Mourinho’s career is in terminal decline. Great managers find ways to rejuvenate themselves.
But for the recovery to begin, Mourinho will need to admit that flaws have seeped into his methods. Defensive organisation might be a good place to start. Mourinho has overseen a successful recovery in the past. In the 2013-14 season, after an unusually reckless phase that saw Chelsea concede on a frequent basis, his tactical tweaks and an “attitude” change among his players made the team’s defence nearly impenetrable.
Now might be the time to bring that lesson back. Mourinho was characterised by proactiveness for over a decade. In the past couple of years, passivity has come to define his managerial style. If he is on the lookout for inspiration, a gander towards the current Chelsea manager may provide the answer. It is not just about Conte’s excitable behaviour during matches. Rather, it is his tactical nous and obsessive work on details that marks him out. This is not to suggest Mourinho is a slacker by comparison. But he finds himself on a slippery slope.
In a season when a stellar managerial lineup was expected to dominate the league, the United manager is the only one to have not scored a victory over his direct rivals. Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and, of course, Conte have either defeated him or one of the others. For a manager who prides himself on getting the better of his title challengers, the current record makes for a sorry reading.
The clock is not ticking yet. But Mourinho will require a team that works for him very soon. Otherwise, his employment status will not remain the same for long.
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Updated Date: Oct 24, 2016 10:23:05 IST