The problem with living in a hotel is that you can pack your bags and check out whenever you want. You don’t put down roots when you live in Room 101. Jose Mourinho is about to begin his third year in his suite at Manchester’s Lowry Hotel, but whether he will be around for a fourth year has now become a bigger question than whether he can inspire Manchester United to the club’s first Premier League title since 2013.
The 2018-19 Premier League season begins on Friday with United taking on Leicester City at Old Trafford, but there is little sense of a fresh start in the red half of Manchester. Not for the first time in his managerial career, the story has become about Mourinho rather than the club where he’s currently in charge; it is rarely a signpost toward a positive and successful future when that happens.
Once again, Mourinho is going into a new season on some kind of war footing and, if previous examples are a guide to what happens next, everyone connected with United should brace themselves for a bumpy ride ahead.
“It’s not been the easiest of summers,” a United source told ESPN FC. “Nobody knows what mood [Mourinho] will be in from one minute to the next.”
So how has it come to this current situation, with Mourinho seemingly wanting to pick fights with anybody and everybody from players to senior figures at the club?
When he arrived as manager in the summer of 2016, United believed they had finally secured the elite manager capable of restoring the club to the position of dominance it enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson. With Manchester City hiring Pep Guardiola, United’s move for Mourinho was a strong-arm response.
City had recruited a serial winner, United did the same and we were all told to expect a new Mancunian monopoly, with the rest of the Premier League forced to watch the battle playing out from afar.
Two years on, both managers have delivered two trophies to their clubs, but with City winning the Premier League with a 19-point margin last season, amassing 100 points in doing so, only one team in Manchester is on an upward trajectory.
Mourinho led United to a second-placed finish in the Premier League last season but according to research released this week for the Luck Index — designed and conducted by ESPN, Intel and the University of Bath — they would have finished two positions lower in the table were it not for good fortune.
The ESPN Luck Index
– The Luck Index: The findings and methodology
– Man United luckiest, Liverpool unluckiest
– Index proves luck doesn’t even out over time
– 10 matches affected by luck last season
– What can clubs do to stay lucky this season?
United may have finished runners-up last season, securing their best league position of the post-Ferguson era, but City were so far ahead last year, both in terms of results and style, that Mourinho looked like a man out of ideas.
And that is why this season has become so crucial, yet also so combustible, for the 55-year-old former Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid coach.
Mourinho has yet to stay longer than three years at any of his previous clubs, but he delivered the league title to each of those and went into Year 3 in a much stronger position than he does at United. So why will he buck the trend and go beyond three years at Old Trafford, when he appears as far from winning the Premier League now as he did when he walked into the club two years ago?
Perhaps the reality of his situation explains his downbeat demeanour during the preseason tour of the United States, where Mourinho complained about everything from squad depth, the lack of new signings, the attitude of his players and even the fitness of his newly appointed captain, Antonio Valencia.
How much of it was a game, played out in front of the cameras while delivering a different message behind the scenes? United players Ander Herrera and Lee Grant both spoke out to suggest the latter (aka Mourinho was a different man inside the dressing room), but if it was an act, he did well to play it so convincingly for so long.
Mourinho goes into the new season facing an array of challenges, though, and catching City is only one of them. That will be the most difficult due to the squad that Guardiola has assembled at the Etihad Stadium, but the loss of long-time assistant Rui Faria also could prove a significant blow. The two men had worked together continuously for 17 years, with Faria regarded as a crucial sounding board, but with Mourinho now without his right-hand man, there are concerns about the effect it will have on him when the going gets tough.
“Rui was not afraid to disagree with Jose,” a United source told ESPN FC. “They would have rows, even fall out for a few days, but Rui was the only one who felt strong enough to argue a point with Jose and it will be interesting to see how the manager will react without him.”
So far, Mourinho has cut a frustrated and unhappy figure without Faria alongside him and the season has not yet even begun. Furthermore, he’s been unable to recruit the players he wants — no manager is ever fully happy with his transfer ins and outs — and has chosen to focus on the negatives rather than the positives this summer.
Paul Pogba won the World Cup with France, Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young were key figures in England’s run to the semifinals in Russia, while Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini both starred to help Belgium finish third, but Mourinho has only spoken of the downsides of the World Cup. He has not declared that United can win the Premier League this season — Ferguson would always talk his team up — so how will his players be viewing the new campaign if their manager is only prepared to highlight the difficulties they face?
It sounds like Mourinho is laying the ground for an exit strategy, all the while finding it impossible to accentuate the positives. It’s as though he is already packing his bags and getting himself set to check out.