There is simply no way an incumbent Manchester United manager could preside over the shambles which was their Champions League elimination at the last 16 stage to Sevilla and then deliver this line. “I sit in this chair with Porto – Man Utd out – I sit in this chair with Real Madrid – Man Utd out… So I don’t think it’s something new for the club.”
But he did. And in it Jose Mourinho is really saying two things. One, he’s a successful Champions League manager, never mind the fact he’s not been relevant in this competition for eight years. Two, Manchester United are an unsuccessful Champions League club.
And that is one of the most stunningly gross and insulting statements that’s ever been spoken in an official capacity by anyone connected to United. Since being given the job though Mourinho has become an expert in talking down expectations to the extent that he could be accused of gaslighting.
He would have you believe that a Europa League title and a fourth-place finish in the Premier League is the natural order of things here – at a club with 20 league titles and three European ones to its name. He would have you believe that one of the world’s most expensively assembled sports teams, with the football world’s highest revenues and with the league’s best-paid player should be willingly accepting of their elimination from this competition by Sevilla.
The Andalusians have good players, sure, but none of them are world class. They are not in the same category as United when it comes to finances, to put it mildly. And this isn’t Sevilla, champions of Spain. This is Sevilla, placed fifth in the current rankings, who have betrayed a lack of confidence in big games this season.
They were hammered in their derby against Betis and by Real Madrid and by Eibar and by Atletico Madrid. They conceded five more goals in one group stage game against Spartak Moscow. They are a team who had never, ever won in England until this, their seventh attempt. They did not win any away match in the group stage, including a 1-1 draw away at Maribor.
Until now they had never been beyond this stage of the Champions League, losing three times, including last year over two legs against crisis-torn Leicester City. This was as easy a tie as United could have hoped for. And Mourinho, the architect of disappointment, was playing it off like it was a normal thing, seeking to avoid taking responsibility for it.
He was the architect firstly because of the way he set his team up in the first leg. He dropped Paul Pogba, had Scott McTominay man-mark Ever Banega and crossed his fingers for David de Gea to keep a clean sheet. He was happy to escape without an away goal. That strategy might well have proven to be the right one – albeit one that failed to excite anybody – if United got the result at home. And in times past you might have expected a United team to score early here and blow the opposition away. That doesn’t happen anymore. The 0-0 set United up for failure.
No team had gone out of the Champions League after a 0-0 away from home in the first leg of the knockouts since Mourinho’s Chelsea against Atletico Madrid in 2013-14. In four years, it can be reasonably inferred, he has learned nothing.
What his quote also did was to begin the uncoupling process with Manchester United. He separated his achievements – with Porto and Real Madrid – from Manchester United’s failures. He put a wedge between what he could do as a manager and what United were capable of as a club. It’s now “me” v “them”.
Never mind the fact that after winning the trophy in 1999, Sir Alex Ferguson reached another three finals, winning one and losing two to Guardiola’s Barcelona. Mourinho was trying to suggest that Ferguson’s Champions League legacy was early-round disappointments and not sustained involvement in the latter stages as well as outright success.
Matches like the one on Tuesday night might well expedite any scenario which sees Mourinho leave the club because it is hard to see exactly how he’s going to take them forward. Both he and Guardiola have been in place in Manchester for the same length of time. Which club has made more progress?
Jose also suggested in his post-match comments that more money would be needed in order to compete. He already has the most expensive striker in the Premier League, the most expensive midfielder and the best-paid player. If he thinks the solution to this mess is to buy more players then he is deluded.
Tactically and strategically, Mourinho is being left behind. He has so far shown no willingness to allow for Pogba’s chief strengths to shine through. He is putting him in that deep central midfield position despite numerous situations arising in which it has been demonstrated that he cannot do it.
Sevilla had the run of the midfield all night at Old Trafford but that problem was particularly pronounced when Pogba replaced Marouane Fellaini. That the Belgian was making his fifth start of the season and his first since November at the expense of Pogba was a sign of the times in the first place; safety first.
Mourinho’s solution to going one behind was to throw on two more attackers. United conceded their second goal moments after Anthony Martial and Juan Mata appeared. And he persisted with Alexis Sanchez when it was patently obvious that in this his tenth Manchester United match he was no closer to working out his role in the team.
United have enough individual quality to rack up the points in the Premier League against teams they should be beating more often than not. But it is in games like this that a manager’s bravery and prowess should be coming to the fore.
Real Madrid and Juventus found a way through this season when they were in severe difficulties against Paris Saint-Germain and Tottenham. United didn’t. But United belong in that kind of company – the kind of club where the history of success drips off the walls and serves as a constant reminder of their places in the pecking order.
Real Madrid and Juventus expected to progress in the Champions League because of who they are; their self-perception. Spirit of Juanito, Fino alla Fine, whatever you want to call it. That defiance, combined with clever management in-game from Zinedine Zidane and Max Allegri, saw them through.
United should have those reserves of belief and Mourinho should know enough to see them out of these tight spots – especially against teams as modest as Sevilla. Mourinho choked but is trying his best to cover up that up. Play down the history and you play down the failure, all in the name of protecting a diminishing reputation.