In virtually conceding any chance of a top four finish in the Premier League, Jose Mourinho may have increased United’s chances of Europa League glory, but the repercussions of failure will be all the greater for it.
To hear Jose Mourinho go on about it, you’d swear there was some kind of sustained conspiracy being acted out against his club right now. It is often the way with the most wealthy and powerful. They look out and see only envy and resentment of their power and prestige, plots being hatched against them at every turn. The victim card is never far from the top of the deck, bringing with it a warm embrace of comfort and reassurance.
The United manager isn’t happy that his side will only have three days to prepare for the Europa League final after fulfilling their last League fixture against Crystal Palace while their opponents, Ajax, will enjoy the luxury of a free 12-day run (it is 10 days….) after the Dutch Eredivisie concludes this weekend. In one sense, it provided a neat distraction for Mourinho, a handy means of deflecting from a profoundly uninspiring 2-1 aggregate victory over a spirited Celta Vigo side visibly deflated at having blown a succession of decent chances to progress.
There is more to it than that, of course. After last night’s game Mourinho spoke of the Crystal Palace tie in such disparaging terms that, without saying it, he made it clear that the only correct course of action would be to abandon it entirely. Because he knows that can’t happen his next line of engagement was to signal his intention to field a thoroughly weakened team, to all but throw the match, and if there were consequences to be faced, well so be it. He shrugged to make his total indifference clear. He simply didn’t care.
We know it is a little white lie, though. The truth is he cares, cares very much. This is classic Mourinho territory. How it would suit his agenda if every press conference between now and May 24 was dominated by United’s fixture schedule and the perceived unfairness of it all. The more consequences, the better. A war of words to ramp things up, perhaps. He can rail against the anti-United bias, state defiantly that they do what they have to do. The siege mentality is ramped up all the time.
And, naturally, this is grist to Mourinho’s mill. The fuel that keeps his engine purring. It has been fascinating to see him come visibly alive these past few weeks, the rather lost, haggard expression of mid-season firmly dissipated now. He is back doing what he loves to do best: taking risks and daring people to find fault, even his employers and his own fans. This calculated ploy will either make him a feted winner again or, should a buoyant Ajax spoil the party in Stockholm in two weeks’ time, merely another spectacular flop.
Who else but Mourinho could even contemplate such a thing? Whatever the circumstances, there seems something dishonourable, or at least not quite right, in disavowing any chance of a top-four finish in the League with so many games left to play and reasonable prospects of achieving it. Winning the Europa League would make that pardonable, if still not right. Whatever Roy Keane claims, victory in Sweden would cap a decent season for United, but Mourinho’s chips are nearly all in that Stockholm basket. He knows his players will have to fight as if their lives depended on it.
In that regard, the signs seem better than ominous. In the Old Trafford tunnel last night, Anders Herrera spoke of United’s “crazy schedule” in recent weeks and of the enhanced importance of Europe given the “impossible task” they had faced domestically. It sounded like a rehearsed line, a script the manager and his players seem determined to follow until the season’s end. Mourinho has convinced his players that they are victims of an unfair workload and they have willingly bought into it. And that’s all that matters.
That it is based on arrant nonsense is, as far as Mourinho is concerned, probably immaterial. United’s recent schedule may well be crazy, they may be suffering from a debilitating injury list (as all clubs do from time to time), but the fact is their schedule is no crazier than most of their rivals. A hectic schedule is not evidence of a bias against any particular club, but is routinely the price of success and of going deep in multiple competitions. Most clubs accept it and cope without excessive moaning. But then most clubs are not Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.
Before they visited Arsenal last Sunday, Mourinho publicly specified the need to rest players due to United’s congested fixture schedule. United, he said, had played nine games in April, as if this was somehow extraordinary, a clear violation of the Geneva Convention. Yet, lots of teams played nine games in April: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich among them. There is nothing remotely extraordinary about the fact at all. Have all these other teams been complaining about fixture congestion too? We don’t hear about it over here anyway.
What was interesting to observe at Old Trafford last night was how dead on their feet United’s players seemed while Celta Vigo moved through the gears in search of the goal that would have put them through. Did that somehow prove Mourinho’s assertions in that they were being outstayed by the fresher team? Perhaps, but the records show that Celta Vigo played nine games in April too. In all the Spanish side has played 57 games this season, roughly comparable to United’s 59. So the question is begged: why weren’t they out on their feet too?
The stock answer to that question is invariably “intensity”. That because games in the Premier League are supposedly played at a superior intensity, there is a greater physical exertion on players. It is, at best, a nebulous argument. Something people perceive as being true with no physiological or statistical data to back it up. They hold too that there is more depth in quality in the Premier League, another questionable claim when West Brom, four points in their last eight matches, can comfortably cling to eighth place.
It was on this very subject that Phil Neville managed to trip over himself when discussing the Arsenal-United game last week. To Neville’s credit, he admitted that the game had bored him and spoke of how a visit to the Bernabeu to watch a free-scoring Real Madrid the previous week had opened his eyes to the poor fare he had been regularly witnessing in the top flight in England. Significantly, this discussion took place on the BBC and not on Sky where such to-the-bone truth-telling is rarely encouraged.
Neville wondered why the top English teams were unable to keep pace with their European rivals at a time when so much money is swirling about. It’s a fair question but, of course, the world’s best players have historically tended to avoid English football and that has only marginally changed with the influx of money into the game in recent years. It’s not a whole explanation, but it is part of it, certainly.
Neville tripped up because he had no other recourse other than to fall back on the old reliable, the number of games played and the intensity. “Real Madrid win games after 60 minutes, then stroll around for the last 30,” he said. “That’s a fact.” But is it? It may be true some of the time, just as it can be true in England, but you can bet Neville had done no research or was in possession of any statistics to support his assertion. It is a pure figment, however accurate, of his imagination.
Then there was the inherent paradox of arguing there was superior intensity in England when the foundation of the discussion lay in how lacking in intensity several of the games he’d witnessed recently in England had been. Not just Arsenal-United but Liverpool-Southampton, Everton-Chelsea, Man City-Man United, others too. There might be nothing quite like a full-blooded, frenetic Premier League encounter, but sometimes they stroll around for long periods too. Whether we care to admit it or not.
And nobody has been doing more strolling than Manchester United in recent weeks. You wonder why in this age of mega-professionalism, with all its emphasis on medical care and recovery, why such an expensively assembled squad couldn’t be mobilised for battle on two fronts for the few remaining weeks of the season. Is the millennial bug sweeping through football now too? Have they really become that soft?
This is the dangerous game Mourinho is playing. Had his players kept full throttle in the quest for a top four finish, shed blood for the cause and ended up falling short in both the League and in Europe, it is likely that supporters, while disappointed, would be proud of their efforts. There would be few recriminations. As it stands, though, failure in Europe would leave them with nothing but regrets and thoughts of what might have been had they not downed tools in the League. How would the manager’s exhortations about a stacked schedule fly then?
It’s impossible to think Jose Mourinho is blind to all these caveats and to the risk he is taking. Towards the end of the game at Old Trafford last night, the thought struck that United are not really suffering from fatigue, but have been so conditioned by their manager to think they have been over-burdened, that they have started to believe it. It is a mental tiredness as much as a physical one and equally as debilitating. Who knows really? It sounds crazy enough to be true at least.
Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. It may well be an old cliche, but Mourinho could alternatively have tried to convince his players to treat the last few remaining games as cup finals, knowing there was a line of luxurious, sandy beaches stretching out for them afterwards. It is what the top players do for their countries every second year at World Cups and at European Championships and their regional equivalents and seem to adapt without too much trouble. So why not now? Because Mourinho made a decision to go down a different route.
We probably shouldn’t complain too much, though. It has made him interesting again. For a time, at least. In a crazy way, Mourinho is telling his players he doesn’t believe they are that good and hoping they will respond to him anyway. It shouldn’t really work, but being Jose Mourinho and seemingly having his mojo back, you wouldn’t be at all surprised if it did.