In times to come, perhaps we shall look back on this month as the one in which Jose Mourinho finally came into his own–you know, the image we all have of him in the back of our minds. October has been riddled with Mourinho’s running battles with her Majesty’s press, the ‘specialists’ that are also known as pundits and, incredibly, with the fans.
It all started on that sunny afternoon on Merseyside when, much to the frustration of Sky and everyone else that had tuned in for a ‘spectacle’, United set up to avoid defeat at Anfield. Cue, pandemonium everywhere! For the first time since the manager got the job, his style of play constituted and comprised the entire debate. Of course, this is a debate that has been a facet of football since memory can care to remember and will continue to do so long after Jose is gone—not that editors mind filling yet more columns with ‘new’ opinions about this debate. Indeed, this particular debate was fueled by City’s seven goal show against Stoke at the Etihad immediately after the full-time whistle had gone at Anfield. Visibly irked by a failure to acknowledge what he would call a well executed game plan, and being accused of shackling his team, Mourinho found comfort in his default mode of attrition.
A 0-1 win away in Portugal in the Champions League was met with similar disdain from the critics but they’d have saved some vitriol for the weekend, if they had known that the nadir was yet to come. At the John Smith Stadium in Huddersfield Town, United hit a low, unknown to the club since the manager got the job. Still, references to Anfield were used as an explanation to the sudden loss of flair in the team. Jose, momentarily shifted his guns from the media to his players. ‘The attitude wasn’t right’, was the diagnosis. There are more than a few professional footballers for whom that is the worst indictment after a game of football. This is why yours truly went with ‘Unacceptable’ as the headline to that Review.
Since then, the club has somewhat been on the mend, but not without the Mourinho shenanigans. A 0-2 League Cup win in Swansea was a professional performance and an easy improvement from Huddersfield but it was the game against Spurs at the weekend which carried lots of pressure for the Portuguese, not least in terms of the fact that the media had spent the best part of the week fearing for United against a Spurs team that had just thumped four goals past Liverpool at Wembley.
In a game played out on tactical margins but mostly with the hustle and bustle of British football, Jose Mourinho came out on top against Mauricio Pochettinho. The relief was tangible. There was the ‘shusshing’ gesture into the Sky TV camera directed to whom it may concern and there was the call for people to calm down and relax a bit during his subsequent sit down presser. What nobody could have foreseen was the veiled jab thrown at fans for apparently questioning a substitution in the game. The jibe would be thrown again at the fans in his program notes for the Champions League game against Benfica on the Tuesday. Another effective but not quite fluid performance against the Portuguese Champions closed the month and virtually ensured that United will play Champions League football in 2018 with a couple of games to spare.
What has gone under the radar is that in Europe, United have more or less secured their place with an aggregate score of 10-1. Domestically, the club sit second in the league, no further than they could have reasonably been if results were hand-picked at the start of the season and are still competing on all fronts heading into the winter. A clean sheet on Tuesday also secured another silent Jose Mourinho record that is now a club record—38 home games unbeaten in all competitions. At a time when the punditry in the country loves having a go at the poor defending among England’s other top clubs, United only have their style available for criticism.
Paul Pogba has inadvertently benefited from this all. The Frenchman’s influence on United has been downplayed for most of the time since he rejoined the club and yet his absence has at times made United unrecognizable. Many in midfield and attack have suffered for it. Perhaps the Frenchman’s case no longer has to be made on these blog columns. It’s likely to be evident in plain sight from hereon.
In the end, October carried a few tests for United’s season, and the Red Devils have just about kept things together ahead of November. Therein it all is a manager who, as far as results are concerned, should be lauded for his performance so far and yet there seems to be a degree of under-appreciation for him. How, Where and or to Whom he channels this frustration makes for a fascinating winter ahead.