The win over Swansea City in the League Cup has lifted some of the post-Huddersfield funk off Jose Mourinho and Manchester United. If they can beat Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, then the crisis—ahem—of the past few weeks will be thoroughly consigned to the classic absolute non-crisis that most mega-clubs’ apparent crises actually are.
But while there is every chance that this will be more blip than crisis, there is a nonetheless a lesson here for Mourinho. Now, it should be said at this point—in case it is not obvious enough that it goes without saying—that Jose Mourinho knows more or less everything there is to know about winning league titles. Since he made the move to Porto he has never managed a side he did not lead to a league title. But even though that is true, and even though his most recent league title was just two and a bit seasons ago, rendering accusations that he is somehow past it more than a little premature, there is something about his current group that he does not quite seem to have clocked.
The current United squad are too punch-drunk, too tarnished and disheartened by the last four years to cope with playing the way they did at Anfield a couple of weeks ago. While the FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League wins count in the record books and do speak to the team’s ability to get the job done in key moments, they have not got anywhere near a league title since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Given that Ferguson’s last seven seasons saw him win five leagues and lose the other two by one point and goal difference this is a drop off that either consciously or subconsciously must add a serious burden to the current United squad’s shoulders.
So Mourinho then, took over a squad that needed to believe in itself again, to believe that it could sustain a challenge, that the brilliant individual talents and as-good-as-you-could-hope-for squad players could coalesce into more than the sum of its part and make themselves a serious force again.
The mini-collapse in the wake of the Liverpool game (which really amounts to just one loss so far, but still), was thus entirely predictable. Momentum is a precious resource for any team in any sport and it is much easier to keep than generate in the first place. By emphasising the need to get out of Anfield with a point over taking the game to a vulnerable Liverpool side, Mourinho might just have sent a message to his players that he did not believe in them. Now this was not, of course, what he meant to say—rather he was just doing his thing, taking the approach to the big games that he always takes to the big games. But the current United side’s confidence is a fragile thing, and if he keeps stopping them playing to their strengths then there will be trouble ahead. For every Anfield there will likely be an accompanying Huddersfield. In a season when whoever wins the league is probably going to do so with a pretty massive points haul, this could have a huge bearing on the outcome of the title race.
Jose Mourinho knows all there is to know about winning league titles. Hopefully he has a plan to deal with this.