MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – The world Jose Mourinho inhabits is one he no longer recognises.
Manchester United’s manager refuses to evolve from a not-so-distant past when he was both adored and feared in equal measure. Often existing in a personal bubble which blends arrogance and self-pity in equal measure, he can no longer hide behind that approach after his side eked out a goalless draw with Southampton on Saturday.
Mourinho is living proof of the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. No matter the outcome – win, lose or draw – his lament always finds a way of stealing focus. It is what he does best. A calendar year in which he delivered two major honours at Old Trafford, one of them ensuring Champions League qualification on merit rather than a coefficient quota, has descended into another season-long pity party.
Spending £261 million is apparently “not enough” to overhaul Manchester City’s growing superiority, which could see the lead over their local rivals at the Premier League summit extended to 16 points before 2018 even arrives. United have also moved down to third in the table, one point behind Chelsea and now have Liverpool breathing down their neck with only three points separating the protagonists of the North West’s greatest feud.
But Mourinho is more than familiar with the odds that have been stacked in favour of a select few in the Premier League. He was once a part of it; leading a well-oiled Chelsea side to the title three times, twice with an eight-point margin and once with 12. But where Pep Guardiola obliterates records, the Portuguese coach prefers to play the same ones on a continuous loop. Excuses are made freely and often, even where equilibrium exists.
What legitimate complaints were to be had when Southampton’s Maya Yoshida handled the ball in his penalty area under pressure from Jesse Lingard were offset by Ashley Young elbowing Dusan Tadic in the stomach from a corner kick. Invariably, Mourinho disagreed.
“A very good referee, one of the most promising young referees not just in England and Europe too, had a very bad decision that punished us,” he said post-match.
“Then the game was about us trying, and missing some important chances and always trying to create, always trying to play and [Southampton] trying their chance in an isolated counter-attack where they had one very good chance that David (De Gea) saved.
“We kept trying with what we have in this moment so I think we deserved to win the match.”
United fans are already growing immune to Mourinho’s charms as his trend of three-year cycles at clubs shows no signs of being bucked. They had already become disenfranchised with his brand of football, epitomised by a chorus of boos that greeted the half-time and final whistles, and desperate pleas of “attack, attack, attack!” from the Stretford End late in the second half. Pockets of empty seats were also visible across the stadium long before referee Craig Pawson called time on a largely forgettable game.
Mourinho previously insisted that United could not afford Romelu Lukaku any much-needed respite after playing every single Premier League minute this season. They will have to learn to function without him after a nasty clash of heads with Wesley Hoedt saw him stretchered off wearing both a neck brace and oxygen mask. In the Belgian’s absence, they lacked an outlet from open play. A flurry of lofted balls into the penalty area rarely found a United shirt, with the intended target had long been removed from action.
More than laborious tactics undid United’s hopes of avoiding their third successive stalemate in the space of seven days. Paul Pogba was flagged offside when he turned in Nemanja Matic’s bobbling shot at the near post. Replays showed that the goal-bound effort did not even require the France international’s touch. They also owed a debt of gratitude to David de Gea, who denied what clear-cut chances the visitors fashioned.
Southampton’s prospects without Virgil van Dijk already appear more promising. Some 33 miles west of Old Trafford, the outgoing defender was preparing himself for life at Liverpool by taking in their win over Leicester City earlier in the day. Anfield’s gain will not even be the Saints’ loss with the Dutchman’s prolonged departure triggering five months of relative disruption on the English coast.
News of his exit, announced barely 24 hours after a 5-2 humiliation at Tottenham appears to have galvanised Mauricio Pellegrino’s side. The Argentine wielded the axe on goalkeeper Fraser Forster in the wake of that Boxing Day hammering, handing Alex McCarthy a first-ever league outing for the club in two seasons.
It was a gamble which paid off as Southampton kept their first clean sheet in 12 games. Such had been the low bar of expectations that chants of “ole!” emanated from the away section whenever their team strung together a succession of passes. But this may represent a major turning point for Pellegrino when his side’s humiliation at Tottenham had left him staring into the abyss.
“Without Virgil now, we have to think about the future, try to bring to the squad a couple of targets to try to improve our squad – to be stronger,” Pellegrino said.
“In six months or one year’s time, maybe we can talk about if to sell Virgil was positive or not.
“But on this, we have to wait.”
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Manchester’s Old Trafford Stadium.