Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
“I know normally Mourinho is lucky at Stamford Bridge,” Jose Mourinho quipped prior to the last time he went to Chelsea’s ground to sit in the away team’s dugout. On that occasion, as manager of Inter Milan in the 2nd leg of a Champions tie in 2010, he came away with a 0-1 victory, which was enough to send Milan into the quarterfinals.
Up to about 14 months ago Mourinho would still have still been able to make a comment like that with total sincerity and not be mocked for it...but not now. Between ’04 and ’07, and from August ’13 to August ’15, he made Stamford Bridge an abattoir – a place where good men went to die. By his 99th league game at The Bridge – spanning over five seasons – he’d lost just one home game, a 1-2 defeat against bottom-of-the-league Sunderland in April ’14 as a result of a very late penalty. Then came August 29th 2015 (his 100th home game in charge) and another 1-2 loss, against Crystal Palace this time. By December 5th that year he’d lost four league games at Stamford Bridge since the start of the campaign, and less than two weeks later he was gone.
“Now I have lost a few matches at The Bridge, so I cannot use the same words,” Mourinho said last Friday when asked about that ‘lucky’ comment he made six years ago. “I knew that, working in England and staying in the Premier League, sooner or later, I had to play against Chelsea and I had to go to Stamford Bridge. The computer has decided that is to be now. And here we go.”
Indeed...United fans would have been more than happy with a mean 0-1 win on Sunday, but what had a lot of them worried was the idea that Mourinho would be satisfied with another scoreless draw akin to last week’s dull stalemate at Anfield, and what filled them with dread was the thought that he might actually try to play for it. The ensuing calamity that actually went down, the slaughter-slab reality of being on the receiving end of a 4-0 whipping, was a shock even to the most pessimistic of United’s travelling supporters who thought they were prepared for the worst.
Mourinho would deny that playing for a draw is ever his intention in any game, but most people have seen enough of him by now to know his tendencies and priorities. United’s performance last Monday at the home field of their main historical enemy was so ugly and cautious it made it clear that he was willing to put aside the significance of any occasion and look at things coldly...A good trait, but one that gets him a lot of criticism, and meant that it was entirely conceivable that he’d adopt a similar game plan for his heavily hyped return to his old stomping ground. Yes; avoid defeat, keep the unbeaten streak going, and emerge intact and buoyant for the Manchester derby in the League Cup on Wednesday.
A fine plan. United were wary at Anfield, but also resolute, and adept enough in executing Mourinho’s instructions to make it half-successful; not scoring themselves, but nullifying Liverpool effectively, and convincing Mourinho that he could ask the same of his players again in Stamford Bridge with reasonable expectations of emerging with at least a point again, or maybe even pinching all three.
Whatever United’s game plan was, the eventuality of going a goal down after thirty seconds was not factored into it. No manager, except maybe one as unlucky as David Moyes these days, would feel it necessary to weigh that into their thinking before a game.
It would not be hard to imagine the Sunderland team hunkered down in the Emirates away dressing room this coming weekend, listening to their manager’s pre-match team talk as he moves the magnetic discs frantically around the tactics board, ladling out the doomful instructions: “Right, boys, we’ve been terribly unlucky in the last few games, so we need to prepare ourselves for a little more bad luck coming our way. What’s that John? No, not last-minute goals, this time we need to be prepared for first-minute goals. It might not happen, but bloody hell do they have some good forward players. So, if Sanchez or Özil happen to score inside the first minute here’s what I want you to do...”
Chelsea’s opening goal on Sunday came so quickly, and jangled United’s nerves so badly, there was no time to get a sense of what United’s initial game plan actually was. From that point they were knocked off their axis and turned to jelly, abandoning whatever original strategy they might have had and conducting themselves like a herd of wildebeest run amok from a pack of hyenas.
It might have gone very differently if Ibrahimovic hadn’t botched a header in the 8th minute which would have leveled the score, or if David Luiz had been given a red card instead of a yellow one in the 41st minute for a horror-show lunge into Marouane Fellaini’s leg with six studs showing...But these were treated as incidental details in most of the match reports that followed – the main story had too much appeal to dwell on them; Mourinho had gone home, and had been stripped and pounded into wailing, gory hamburger meat.
Some United fans are starting to lose faith now. Which is understandable, because United are now 5 points worse off than they were at this stage last season, and going by the performances there has not been any clear progression at all since the end of the van Gaal era, despite spending £150 million in the summer transfer window.
A bad indictment...There are now a small number of United supporters walking around weeping openly, having absorbed the worrying signs and convinced themselves that the last three years support the viewpoint that their club is now the ‘New Liverpool’, in the infant years of its own sterile period that will stretch for two decades or more, and that no matter how much they spend, what players they spend it on, or what manager they appoint, there is no way to stop it.
No...Too soon for that kind of talk, but the comparison has already been made by some in a half-serious kind of way, and if after three years Mourinho has failed, run aground on the same rocks as Moyes and van Gaal, then it might be time to revisit that idea. He was to be the one guarantee; the one bitter but certain comfort that no matter how far the club drifted from its own ideals and style, they would still be dominant, or at least be competitive...And they still could be, but the prevailing wisdom now is that Mourinho will need another couple of transfer windows until he has a team he can call his own and feels he can work with.
“Maybe then he’ll finally start acting like himself,” they say, which raises a point about Mourinho many people have commented on; namely, that since landing the job that he’s thought to have coveted for his entire career, he’s looked listless and low, projecting himself in a sort of muted, self-censored way. An article on The Guardian’s website on Tuesday observed that “Mourinho appears to have lost some of his love for football”, while The Times on the same day reported on how the United players have been ‘stunned’ by Mourinho’s distant, hands-off approach to training.
The only relief for United at the weekend came in the results of other fixtures. City, Arsenal and Tottenham all being held to draws means that despite dropping 15 points so far this season, United are still only six points behind the leaders, going into two very ‘winnable’ games against Burnley and Swansea before a chance to gain some ground against Arsenal on November 19th.
The top seven clubs in the Premier League are now more tightly compressed than the top seven in the Championship – a league that’s long been notorious for having more parity than its higher-ranking counterpart. City, Arsenal and Liverpool are all level on 20 points, followed by Chelsea and Spurs on 19 points, and Everton on 15 points. They will all slice chunks off each other, which will give United hope of working their way back into the Title Race while at the same time presenting them with the obstacle of six clubs they have to climb over in order to get to the top.
United are still in contention, in other words, but only just, and even the more generous estimations are that their title bid is now only two or three defeats away from veering off the road completely. They will need to put together a very consistent run from now until the end of the season, with several victories and a few draws in what are regarded as their remaining ‘key clashes’; Arsenal (H), Everton (A), Spurs (H), Liverpool (H), City (A), Everton (H), Chelsea (H), Arsenal (A), and Spurs (A)...Which does not look achievable at this moment, because in their three encounters with top-six teams so far, United have taken just a single point.
Right, but before all that is the matter of the League Cup 4th Round – a Manchester derby that could not have loomed up at a more inconvenient time for either participant. United’s humiliation against Chelsea and City’s 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday means that a cup knockout would be enough to bring a very intense media pressure down on either club/manager now, with City winless in five games and United looking to ‘bounce back’ from a serious flaying.
But probably more intense in United’s case; being at home, having already lost to City once this season, and because City, despite their own problems, are still top of the league...Less to lose, but less likely to win, according to the bookmakers who deem United to be very slight favourites.