José Mourinho has a way of convincing you, which is to huff and sneer as if his side of the argument is, self-evidently, the correct one. He’s not going to explain to you why this is the way to do things because he knows, everybody with a brain knows, that he’s right, not because he’s a genius, that’s for you media types to argue about amongst yourselves, but because he’s alive and awake and breathing the same air you are. The next time I see David Beckham, I will ask him if he dropped back when his team didn’t have the ball, Mourinho said, lecturing some skeptical reporters after Manchester United’s paralyzingly slow goalless draw against Sevilla in the first leg of their Champions League tie. It seems that some [of you] guys are creating a new sport.
Some of this bluster is an act and some of it is genuine indignation and somewhere in it there’s a game doubling back on itself. Mourinho knows what he’s doing, and he knows that you know it, and maybe it’s that second part that angers him a little bit. He’s the only one who gets to be in on the joke, or whatever you would call it. For what it’s worth, after popping off at the press conference a few weeks ago, he hugged a BT Sport correspondent who asked him a question about Scott McTominay. He has fun, in his miserable way.
But Mourinho’s critics have a point, now more than ever. Manchester United are out of the Champions League, and it’s not because a team like Barcelona or Bayern Munich straightforwardly bested them. It’s not totally clear what happened. United played for a goalless draw at the Sanchez Pizjuan, and by the grace of David De Gea’s dexterity, they managed to get one. But then they went home and… what was the plan, exactly? United were disorganized at the back—due in part to some loose passing from their defenders and holding mids—and unimaginative going forward. Marcus Rashford, as is his wont, was spritely and dangerous down either sideline, but Romelu Lukaku was largely contained by Clement Lenglet and Alexis Sanchez, who seems to still not totally have a position in Mourinho’s attack, was anonymous. Before Lukaku’s irrelevant 84th-minute goal, Marouane Fellaini had the best of United’s chances. He smashed the ball right at Sergio Rico, who parried the shot away for a corner.
Sevilla were okay. When they turned United over in the midfield, they sought to run at scrambling defenders, but they didn’t create an abundance of danger until Wissam Ben Yedder came on and scored in the 74th minute, then again in the 78th. I know Sevilla carry the clout of having won, like, seventeen consecutive Europa League titles, but in reality this is the one the weakest squads the Andalusian club have fielded in recent years. They lost their best attacker, Vitolo, last summer and Monchi, the scouting and transfer market wiz who had helped Sevilla compete with Spain’s bigger clubs despite their limited resources, works for Roma now. They’re solidly fifth in the domestic table in what’s been a down year for La Liga. They fired Eduardo Berizzo in December and replaced him with Vincenzo Montella, who was sacked by Milan in November and for whatever reason can’t figure out that Ben Yedder—two goals in twenty-two minutes, boss—is a better striker than Luis Muriel. They were recently thrashed by Atlético Madrid and soundly beaten by Valencia.
In short, United are simply better than Sevilla. Or they are in theory, anyway. It’s difficult to say one team is superior to another after they get thoroughly outplayed over 180 minutes, barely surviving while trying to endure shot after shot on the road and returning home to dully pass the ball sideways and hoof it long. This is an unsophisticated way of putting it, but also maybe the truest: Manchester United just didn’t really try to play. And so they lost, because that’s the sort of thing that can happen when you take no risks and assume a goal will fall out of the sky at some point.
This has happened to Mourinho before, but typically against excellent competition. His Real Madrid teams took lead pipes and pool cues to Xavi and Andres Iniesta’s shins and it produced mixed results: five wins, six losses, six draws. In the 2014 Champions League semifinal against Atlético Madrid, Mou’s Chelsea didn’t even pretend to try to score at the Vicente Calderon, then got whacked 3-1 at Stamford Bridge. A dour, high-profile defeat to an underpowered Sevilla team is a different thing.
Mourinho's rejoinder: I've sat in this chair twice before, with Porto: Man United out, with Real Madrid: Man United out. So this is nothing new for this football club. He’s had a lot of success, is his point, and he’s entitled to cite it, but this approach has worked well elsewhere is a stubborn loser’s argument. Though even great managers restrict themselves with principles—Pep Guardiola would sooner cast himself into the sea than play through a target man—they are not inflexible, because players have their limitations and maybe Paul Pogba can’t do absolutely everything you ask of him. You find a way to make it work, or you fail. The first thing is pragmatism, which is what Mourinho supposedly prides himself on. The next time I see David Beckham, etc. The second thing you can spin any way you like, but it still stings. It’s an open question whether Mourinho knows that he’s blowing his Manchester United tenure or not. If beneath the princely hostility, he feels a sharp, shameful tingling, he wouldn’t ever let us know.