When things get really bad in his career and events spiral out of control, Jose Mourinho can never stop himself defending the one thing that matters more to him than anything in football – that being his own reputation and the achievements he has accrued over 18 years as a manager.
It is the keystone of his ego, of his sense of self and the place in the world that the PE teacher from Setubal fought his whole life to establish. Sometimes it feels like he would do anything to protect it and in the Old Trafford press room after this defeat to Tottenham Hotspur that was what he did: Mourinho with his back to the wall, besieged by doubt, embarrassed by a younger manager and only one way out.
It was why he held up three fingers and posed a rhetorical question about what that number represented – the answer, of course, being his three Premier League titles that equate to one more than all his current 19 managerial peers put together. He was barely keeping a lid on the rage by that stage, the old myth that Mourinho is a careful choreographer of the big moments well and truly skewered as he let emotions take over and marched out demanding “respect”.
It looked bad, an angry man demanding that everyone else see the world the way he does – as if the young Mourinho ever cared about past achievements or the reputations of others. His team have lost two out of their first three Premier League games and go to Burnley on Sunday in 13th place. Mourinho insisted repeatedly after Monday’s defeat that they played well but how that tallied with three goals conceded in the second half he was not prepared to elaborate.
The worst home defeat of his career, even it seems going back to the days when he transformed the fortunes of the humble Uniao de Leiria before Porto picked him up midway through the 2001-2002 season and the Mourinho brand suddenly took off. No doubt Mourinho would suggest that statistic shows just what a good career he has had up and he would be right – but the more pressing questions will surely be where United go from here.
A summer of discontent has segued into a catastrophic start to the season and at the centre of it is Mourinho, falling out with players, testing the patience of those who run United and looking very much like a man on a familiar path to self-destruction. It is early days yet, of course, but it is the kind of deep-seated damage that is being wrought and the knowledge of where that leads which will cause such concern at Old Trafford.
For Mauricio Pochettino, who for the first time took a team to Old Trafford and won, this was a major triumph always destined to be overshadowed by the issues of the man alongside him on the touchline. After some brief complaints at the end of last season, which seem to have ended with the agreement of his new contract, Pochettino has won his first three games and Spurs sit second without any new signings or, indeed, a new stadium yet.
There was a standout performance from Lucas Moura who scored twice after Harry Kane had struck the first and generally the Brazilian was exceptional throughout. Mourinho wanted to make it clear that “technically and strategically” his team had been the better and that sounded very much like him trying to say that the tactics were right and the execution wrong. He stopped himself deflecting blame onto individuals but had he done so it was obvious where he would have started.
He picked a three-man defence with Ander Herrera co-opted onto the right side, a reaction to the defeat against Brighton and Hove Albion and a change that felt far too clever for its own good. In the end it was the players who seemed unable to deal with it, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling both badly beaten for the first and third goals, a gaping space down the left side of United’s defence for the second.
Victor Lindelof’s second half performance as a replacement for the injured Jones was encouraging only in that he did not contribute directly to a Spurs goal – although he certainly came close. Mourinho did not even include Eric Bailly in the squad, nor was there a place on the bench for Juan Mata, Antony Martial or Andreas Pereira all starters in the defeat to Brighton. No doubt Mourinho will see all this defensive chaos as a direct consequence of the refusal of the club to buy anyone in that position over the summer, although there will be little sympathy for that viewpoint.
United missed chances in the first half, Romelu Lukaku in particular when Danny Rose’s back pass put him in but they also ran badly short of ideas after the break. They chased the game by bringing on Alexis Sanchez and then Marouane Fellaini, a familiar ploy that had the stands behind Mourinho quietly emptying as they realised that the game was already lost.
For Spurs, Rose was playing his first game of the season, an unexpected inclusion in the team and he did not have an auspicious first half. Hugo Lloris retained the captaincy after his drink driving charge last week and there was less for him to do than might have been expected. United had the better of the first half even though Jones was lucky not to concede a penalty for a foul on Moura.
After the break, the response from the away team was brutal. They scored two in three minutes, the first from Kane when he took a step backwards away from Jones who realised in horror too late that he had lost track of both his man and Kieran Trippier’s corner. The England captain nodded one back across David De Gea’s goal. Trippier sent Christian Eriksen down the right three minutes later and he crossed for Moura to score the second.
Then Moura scored the third, running through United, past Smalling and finishing confidently. Behind Mourinho his staff struggled to meet his gaze, out on the pitch the confidence drained. If this is not the next stage of the long goodbye to Mourinho at Old Trafford then it certainly feels like it, the man himself in a shiny black overcoat as dark as his mood.
At the final whistle Mourinho marched onto the pitch as if to do something important although he just ended up solemnly applauding the Stretford End. He said later he was grateful the fans had recognised the quality in the performance although it was hard to tell if that was really how they felt.
Adapted from an article on: The Telegraph