Jose Mourinho walked out of the Old Trafford news conference after Man United’s 1-0 victory over Bournemouth and into an area of the main stand used by directors and their guests. Mourinho normally keeps on walking but this time, he spent 20 minutes talking to Ed Woodward and Avi Glazer. There were smiles; they all looked at ease.
Taken on a financial or even playing level, 2017 has been a success for Manchester United. The team won two trophies, got back into the Champions League and have progressed to the last-16 with an exciting tie and first-ever trip to Seville ahead. There’s also a first trip since 1981 to Bristol City next week in the League Cup quarterfinal and United’s league record of played 17, won 12, drawn two and lost three is not unimpressive.
But we all know that those statistics don’t reflect the reality of the mood among fans, who are still coming to terms with a league they’re unlikely to win this season because Manchester City are streaking ahead. That’s a bitter pill for United fans to swallow but it won’t be the first time United have tried to play catch-up, nor will it be the last. It’s also not the first time Jose Mourinho is chasing Pep Guardiola, this Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo arms race of managers.
When Mourinho was hired by Real Madrid in 2010, he was viewed as the only man capable of stopping Guardiola and his magnificent Barcelona team; it’s something he’d done as Inter Milan manager when he prevented the Catalans from winning the 2010 Champions League. Had they done that, they would have won three consecutive European Cups.
But Mourinho had an inauspicious start. Three months in, his side were hammered 5-0 at Barcelona in the best performance from any side that this writer has ever seen. Barcelona retained the league and then won the Champions League again in 2011, outclassing Manchester United so much at Wembley that the former United striker Andy Cole stood shaking his head in his seat, repeatedly, saying: “They’re toying with us.”
But Mourinho would come good. His team won La Liga the following season with a record 100 points, though it helped that he had Ronaldo in his attack. That’s when Guardiola decided to leave Barcelona. The pressure had taken its toll in his four magnificent seasons at Camp Nou. He looked worse for it and though his players now gloss over it, several of them were getting deeply agitated with him.
Guardiola is such an intensely motivated individual that he needs to step back, take a change or have a break. He’s genuinely happy in Manchester with his family and has even invited some friends over for Christmas, but he’s never been at a club for more than those four years at Barca. And he doesn’t like being drawn into conflicts because he loses the absolute control for which he strives.
Mourinho shares some similarities. He had driven most of the Madrid dressing room mad by the time he left in 2013, but they’re the best two managers in the world. For now Guardiola has the edge, but that only motivates Mourinho. He knows he has to be at his best if he has a chance of catching City; he thinks that City were a better team with better players and a more settled style of playing when he arrived, and he was probably right.
The anger among United fans following Sunday’s derby defeat is still subsiding and it won’t vanish. It was a knockout blow. A United win would have meant a true, two-way title race, but defeat means all those big-name signings — Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic — are highly unlikely to bring the title this season. Second place feels like second-best because it is, more so in Spain than England, where it represents failure for Barcelona or Real Madrid. But there are plenty of second prizes, one of them bigger than the Premier League title: the Champions League.
Nobody is claiming that United are at Real Madrid’s level just yet, but Mourinho’s biggest successes have been in the cups since he became United manager. The planning and detail he puts into his opponents leaves players at Carrington stunned. Whereas Louis van Gaal would call meeting after meeting to do things as a group, Mourinho and his tight, trusted inner circle absorb as much information as possible. He’ll do everything he can to keep improving.
Facing Bournemouth at home on Wednesday night barely lifted the spirits after Sunday. It was a wretched Mancunian winter night when United’s U-18s also crashed out of the FA Youth Cup. The fanzine sellers outside Old Trafford said they hadn’t known two games of consecutively appalling weather in 30 years. Those sellers, young lads who use the money to follow their team, had to stand in it while people shuffled past, heads down in the freezing rain, the idea of buying a paper-based product the last thing on their minds.
But it was also a narrow 1-0 United win, another clean sheet. United had two shots on target all match. Liverpool didn’t win in midweek, nor did Arsenal. There were a few decent positives for United. Juan Mata played well, as did Luke Shaw and Phil Jones in his first game back since injury. Jones is an important part of his manager’s plans while Shaw is slowly getting chances and taking them. Little by little. Fans want things to work out for Shaw because they know he has the talent to succeed.
Scott McTominay looks like he could play at the Premier League level. Good for him and for Mourinho for giving him a chance, another lad from England’s northwest getting a game at Manchester United. Manchester City do not give chances to their most talented youngsters.
Lukaku also scored his 14th goal of the season. It was impressive, but a touch hollow since he struggles to score against the best teams. Like every other new United signing, he deserves a full season before he’s judged with more scrutiny.
Bournemouth are decent, too. David de Gea needed to be at his usual sublime best, making five saves from Jermaine Defoe et al. Above all else United just need to keep at it, get the best points total in years in the league and do well in the cups. They need to hope that, somehow, things start to go wrong across the city.