Jose Mourinho began playing his mind games against rival managers earlier than usual this season. After Liverpool signed keeper Alisson for a then position record of $70 million, Mourinho stated that Jurgen Klopp has to win a trophy this season based on their recent developments. While Klopp attempted to diffuse the situation by saying that his goal in life was to make Mourinho smile, the dig at the Liverpool manager reflected more upon his frustration at a lack of investment from his own club this summer. Tempering expectations ahead of United’s season, he said that other contending clubs are already strong or buying “everything and everybody” like Liverpool.
It is difficult to parse what Mourinho actually believes, or if he’s playing possum ahead of a trademark, overachieving while having his back against the wall season. But in finishing 19 points behind Manchester City last season and just two addition in the transfer window thus far, there is also a tone of realism and defeat in the manager’s analysis of his own roster. Of United’s opening fixtures played without their World Cup stars just returning from a summer break, he simply says it will be difficult for their small squad but “that’s what it is”.
Mourinho does have a point of United not spending when compared to their rivals in the top four. The club made two key signings this summer, adding midfielder Fred for $68 million and right back Diogo Dalot for $25 million (although at 19 years old, he may not contribute this season). While Fred offers a quick, passing option and slots in alongside Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic in midfield, there is little expectation for him to make the difference in a title winning campaign. Instead, with Chelsea and Liverpool each making record signings at keeper while adding starting midfield talent, the gap between second and third place has been closed faster than the gap between first and second.
In lieu of transfer additions, Mourinho spent the summer battling his own players. Anthony Martial’s left the United preseason camp for personal reasons and didn’t return for eight days until he was threatened with a $230,000 fine (at one point, Mourinho admitted he had “no idea” when the winger would return). The disagreement led to rumors of the 22 year old swapping sides with the 30-year-old Willian at Chelsea. But Martial’s potential move would only further support criticisms of the manager’s inability to work with young players - especially as Kevin De Bruyne and Mo Salah battled for Player of the Year honors last season - despite his promotion of Andreas Pereira into the starting lineup.
Mourinho criticized Antonio Valencia’s conditioning, saying the the winger had “too much holiday”. He urged Ashley Young to cut his break short and return to United unless the winger “prefers to stay on holiday”. And Mourinho again clashed with Pogba as he did throughout last season. In congratulating the midfielder for winning the World Cup, he stated that Pogba’s success was due to being isolated from “commercial compromises” and “every possible influence”. Pogba is now a rumored target for Barcelona.
In what should be a time filled with optimism over a new season, much of the analysis surrounding Mourinho involves his mental state. Paul Ince observes that Mourinho “looks grumpy” and will quit the club if he’s not given transfer resources. Former United player Brian McClair says that Mourinho should appears as if he’s “enjoying” managing. He “looks defeated” even before the opening match. His ennui plays out in tangible way. Defender Jerome Boateng reportedly turned down an offer to join United. Axel Witsel turned down the club in favor of Dortmund. Unlike their league rivals, there will be no record breaking, message sending transfers for United this time around.
Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are inevitably linked in any conversation, such is their impact on the last decade of the sport. As Mourinho looks sullen, Guardiola is the one filled with the excitement and energy of working with a young squad. And though we will alway remember his youthful image when he first appeared on the Premier League scene some 14 years ago, Mourinho is now 55 years old. Maybe there is truth in his inability to connect with a new generation of footballers. Undoubtedly one of the greatest managers of his generation, what else does Mourinho have to prove at United? He may be the same quality of manager as he was a decade ago. But the world that has changed, and all that’s left is what he’s described as a difficult season ahead.