First, you have a club like Manchester United, an impossibly rich and successful one that very recently was the true hegemon of English soccer but as of late has endured more humiliation than glory. Then, you couple it with a manager like José Mourinho—a legitimately legendary figure, a true visionary of his time, an unapologetically brash and cocky man who for years and years only knew success, but has recently been humbled almost as often as he has been exalted. It makes complete sense, then, that when you combine the two you get lots of people breathlessly anticipating the paired downfall of the club and the manager. Success breeds contempt, arrogance often inspires the desire to see it punished, and schadenfreude is probably the second biggest motivator in sports fandom behind love of the local XI.
For a while now, it’s felt like there was a certain eagerness to declare United and Mourinho dead. This impulse was strongest after United’s boring, fortunate 0-0 draw away to Liverpool a couple weeks back. Mourinho set his team up using the safe, unambitious approach his teams often resort to in big games—especially big away games—by telling practically everyone to sit extremely deep and make it as hard as possible to be scored on, with little regard for doing any damage on the other end. Liverpool attacked in wave after wave, dominating the ball with a possession stat of 62 percent, taking 16 shots to United’s six. Only suspect finishing kept Liverpool from coming away with a win. This made United and Mourinho look pretty bad.
Normally, coming away from Anfield with a clean sheet and a point would be no big embarrassment. However, the narrative that United were reliant on Mourinho’s unadventurous tactics to eke out draws against their peers rather than going for the jugular regardless of opponent, and doing so in a league with the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino—coaches who more or less play the same way every week no matter who’s lined up against them—played into the broader idea that maybe Mourinho’s style of coaching had passed its expiration date. This narrative was strengthened after Pochettino’s Tottenham went up against Liverpool just a week later and blew the doors off the Reds, pressing and attacking in numbers in a way that drew stark contrast to United’s staid approach. Right then, you could see the doubts about Mourinho’s coaching begin to take form among those prone to find fault with his philosophy.
Maybe, in a league with so many big, well-funded teams all vying for a spot in the top four, settling for draws in matches against title rivals was no longer sufficient. Maybe, in an era of attack-minded coaches winning the trophies and the adulation—managers who employed highly structured attacks where one player moving 11 feet to the left means three other players must make similarly exact compensatory movements to conform to the manager’s rigid positional structure—Mourinho-style laxity in attacking instruction couldn’t compete with the goal returns of his competitors. Maybe it meant something that in three of his past four seasons, Mourinho’s teams haven’t genuinely challenged for the title, and two of those times—his abbreviated final Chelsea season and his first one in Manchester—his clubs’ seasons ended outside the top four altogether. Maybe, just maybe, the Special One wasn’t so special any longer.
Luckily, United and Mourinho had a chance to set the record straight just a couple weeks after the Liverpool “failure.” This weekend United hosted Tottenham, and their 1-0 win was perfectly Mourinhian.
It should be noted that United’s gameplan in the Tottenham match did differ from their gameplan against Liverpool in some significant ways. For one, United matched Spurs’ back three formation by setting up in one of their own, playing in a 3-4-1-2 rather than their normal 4-2-3-1. Crucially, this allowed Marcus Rashford (and later Anthony Martial, the substitute who eventually scored the game’s decisive goal) to play closer to goal in their natural positions as strikers rather than getting shunted out wide as left-sided midfielders where, as talented and versatile as both forwards are, neither player has demonstrated a consistent ability to create danger for others or finish moves off themselves. The formation reflected Mourinho’s greater attacking intent, as the three forward-most players were allowed to stay high up the pitch in order to instigate quick counters with numbers, whereas Mourinho’s typical setup only allows for a single player to sit so high. Still, the defensive commitment, the stymying of an expansive-playing team’s attack, and the calculated biding of time until the team would push forward late on to steal the three points with a late goal are textbook Mourinho strategy, and it worked to perfection against Spurs on Saturday.
It may be easy to forget, what with the way Manchester City are threatening to run away with the title and the burgeoning apathy surrounding Mourinho and his team, but United still are sitting pretty in the league. Despite the Liverpool draw and the unexpected Huddersfield loss that followed it, United currently are second in the table, five points behind City and three points ahead of third-place Tottenham. It’s still seems like this Red Devils roster lacks the scoring threat most of their competitors boast, which makes it hard to see them lifting the title when it’s all said and done. Also, the upcoming fixtures on their league schedule figures to be much more difficult than what they’ve come up against so far (five of United’s next six matches are against teams currently in the top half of the table, a run which includes games against City, Chelsea, and Arsenal). By the turn of the year United could very well look more like top-four hopefuls rather than legit title challengers, which is probably closer to their actual level.
Nevertheless, behind the rampant Citizens, no club is better positioned to swoop in and nab the title for themselves than United are. Manchester United’s glory days, when fans could assume a title or two every season to go along with some of the most exciting, attacking soccer in the land, may not have returned quite yet, and Mourinho arguably isn’t on the cutting edge of strategic, motivational, and physical coaching the way he was seven or eight years ago. But United are still a huge, terrifying team capable of giving a serious push for the league title for the first time since Sir Alex left, and Mourinho’s name still belongs in the uppermost tier of managers. Neither of those things seem to be going away anytime soon, despite what Mourinho’s and/or United’s haters would prefer.