Manchester United against Tottenham is no longer just a game, it seems. From the way the fixture is being billed, it’s more a pivotal moment in Jose Mourinho’s short-term future. Lose to Spurs and Mauricio Pochettino and Mourinho’s job is in serious jeopardy.
But is that really true?
Mourinho’s issues at Old Trafford seem bigger than any individual game. Yes, his job performance will always be measured by the league table and losing is never a good look at that kind of club, but he seems to be fighting more of an ideological war.
In fact, one of the features of Mourinho’s career, in spite of his reputation for being the arch pragmatist, is that he doesn’t actually mind losing games – just so long as those defeats serve his own purposes. If, for instance, United are beaten tonight because of a defensive mistake or because Toby Alderweireld has a particularly good game, who does that really reflect badly on?
In the real world, that would be his doing. Compared with Spurs, United are a fabulously well-resourced club who should never lose to a side constructed from such a comparatively meagre wage-spend. Nevertheless, one can easily imagine the post-game press-conference: Mourinho with that look of incredulity spread all over his face, feeding the press “I told you so” lines which heavily implicate Ed Woodward.
Most likely, United will win. Despite their six-point start, Spurs have big issues in their midfield and are still without Son Heung-Min and (for different reasons) probably Hugo Lloris too. As per last season, expect a tight game with one of Mourinho’s high-powered substitutes making the difference late on.
But if they were to lose, unlikely as that sounds, shouldn’t the club be tracing its steps to this point before it looks at Mourinho? He certainly has a case to answer and his inability to improve what he has and achieve results with a team which is stronger than at least 18 of the others in the Premier League should definitely put his employment in doubt.
But to focus solely on that is really to miss the point – and even to invite further, future dysfunction. Who employed Mourinho? Who knew exactly what he would bring and who has failed to provide the conditions under which he has traditionally succeeded?
These are two separate issues at Old Trafford. Manchester United aren’t performing as their supporters would wish on the pitch, but that’s because of decisions which have been made in the executive boxes which overlook it. There isn’t a hero and villain here, just two employees accentuating each other’s weaknesses.