On Saturday afternoon, as the final whistle blew at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho put a finger to his lips, strode towards the nearest television camera and made a ‘shush’ gesture that was both distinctive and unmistakable.
It was a brief moment of relief from a man who clearly feels that he has been treated unfairly in recent weeks both by the media and, to a much lesser extent at the weekend, by a small section of Manchester United supporters. His post-match gesture was fuelled by a vital victory against Tottenham Hotspur and a feeling of unmerited condemnation of his team’s recent performances – it was a direct response to his doubters and detractors.
The past fortnight has undoubtedly been a challenging period for Mourinho and Manchester United. The Portuguese maestro was widely criticised for his tactical approach at Anfield two weeks ago, which produced a dull goalless draw, with further pressure added when his side slumped to a surprise defeat against newly promoted Huddersfield Town.
After eighty minutes of the contest against Tottenham on Saturday, another dull affair which seemed destined to end in a bore-draw, Mourinho was jeered by some supporters for his decision to replace Marcus Rashford with Anthony Martial.
After the draw against Liverpool, Mourinho was branded as “the enemy of football” by the Daily Mail for his conservatism and pragmatism and, at Old Trafford, he was being rounded upon by a portion of his own fan-base.
The irony of cause was that Martial would grab United’s winning goal, which empowered Mourinho to respond to his critics with his distinctive gesture at the final whistle. The combination of, what one can only assume that the 54-year-old believes is, an unfair, criticism of his approach, alongside the response of the Old Trafford faithful, appears to have tweaked a nerve.
Naturally, this provoked a definitive response from the Portuguese coach.
“Enemy of football”?
Whether the criticism that Manchester United have received in recent weeks is warranted is open to debate.
It is hard to deny that the performances against Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur were anything other than dull contests – far from being the thrilling fixtures that the media had built them up to be.
There is also a degree of truth that Jose Mourinho could have utilised a more forward-thinking approach in both of those matches, especially considering the fact that he spent another £100 million on new players during the close-season.
Yet, in contrast, any team that faces a trip to Anfield and a contest against an in-form Tottenham side would be delighted to walk away with four points on the board. That will certainly be Mourinho’s argument – his pragmatism may not have excited the casual observer but the points secured by utilising a conservative approach may turn out to be crucial at the end of the campaign.
If United lift the Premier League title when the season concludes there will be few supporters that will reflect on those four points as anything other than two vital results.
It also takes two to tango. Whilst Mourinho may have set up his team to be defensively solid against Liverpool and Tottenham it is worth noting that neither Jurgen Klopp nor Mauricio Pochettino were prepared to unshackle their own players when they faced United.
Mourinho has a reputation for employing a pragmatic, win-at-all-costs philosophy, in which securing silverware by any means necessary is the only thing that matters. This is a common misconception, both historically and in the present day.
United are the second-highest goal scorers in the Premier League this season and have found the net on more occasions than any of their title rivals barring Manchester City, who are admittedly operating on a different level than any other English club at the moment.
The Reds have been more productive in front of goal than Tottenham, despite the fact that Spurs are widely lauded for their expansive football, and have scored three or more goal in seven of their fourteen fixtures across all competitions.
This hardly indicates that United under Mourinho are any less expansive or exciting to watch than the majority of their rivals.
Even in his previous roles at various clubs across Europe the evidence suggests that the Portuguese coach is far from pragmatic. During the 2011/12 season his Real Madrid side secured the Spanish title with a record number of points (100), a record number of goals scored (121) and a record number of victories (32).
Even in England, during his debut season at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea won the Premier League with a record haul of 95 points.
Pep Guardiola has changed the dynamics of English football
So is Jose Mourinho really the “enemy of football”? The evidence certain suggests that his Manchester United side is one of the most effective and expansive in England in terms of scoring goals.
There is often the lazy and heart-hearted comparison made between the current United side and the renowned teams that were constructed by Sir Alex Ferguson during the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Scotsman, who is undoubtedly one of the most successful football managers in the history of the game, is often presented as promoting swash-buckling, expansive football at Old Trafford – this is often a rose-tinted reflection on his spell with the club.
Whilst his reign was certainly characterised by exciting football Ferguson’s teams also knew how to grind out a gritty, messy one goal victory when they were required to.
And what if Mourinho is pragmatic at times?
Manchester United are a club that has struggled to emerge out of the Ferguson’s shadow following his retirement – his immediate successors struggled to bring any sort of silverware or success to Old Trafford.
However, under Mourinho the club have already secured one League Cup and Europa League triumph and one can only assume that they will be the first of many.
If the Portuguese coach is able to add further trophies to the Old Trafford trophy cabinet, of which both David Moyes and Louis Van Gall struggled to achieve, then why is winning ugly from time to time such a bad thing? Since when has winning been a stick to beat a manager with?
The problem for Mourinho is that just across Manchester Pep Guardiola has unleashed his total football revolution onto an unsuspecting Premier League.
Manchester City have made an astonishing start to the Spaniard’s second season in English football, both in terms of results and the style of play that has been deployed.
Guardiola has suddenly raised the bar in terms of what is expected of the so-called ‘big-six’ clubs, which has heaped an unexpected amount of pressure on Mourinho’s shoulders.
In any normal season, United’s start to the campaign would see them sitting two or three points clear at the top of the table, yet City’s emergence as a genuine superpower has altered the dynamics and boundaries.
The one thing that you can guarantee, though, is that Mourinho will be determined to re-established United as the leading club in Manchester. He has been a thorn in Guardiola’s side in the past and you would not bet against him responding to his critics and the pressure from across the city with a title triumph.
Come the end of the season, if United do beat their local rivals to the title, not one supporter inside Old Trafford will be the slightest bit bothered how they achieved it.
Jose Mourinho, the ‘enemy of football’? I think not.