Manchester United are League Cup winners and 6-4 Europa League favourites. They are the masters of the second tier, and are six points off fourth position in the Premier League with two games in hand on Liverpool. None of this brings much joy to Jose Mourinho.
Counting the bets at Cheltenham would be quicker than listing all Mourinho’s complaints this week. They arrived in such a blizzard that it would be hard even picking out a top 10. The simplest of them is that United ought not to be kicking off at Middlesbrough at 12 o’clock on Sunday after playing Chelsea in the FA Cup on Monday night and Rostov in the Europa League on Thursday. “At least let us sleep a little bit on Sunday,” Mourinho said, sounding like a student ordered to wash the family car by 10am after a big night out.
Simply, Mourinho has been in a filthy mood all week. Not interesting, by itself, unless you ask what it says about him and United. Or, more specifically, what it says about his view of United after an FA Cup exit and a workmanlike Europa League win.
The most serious of his lamentations was delivered to Gary Lineker on the BBC. “I found a sad club when I arrived here,” he said, and went on to bemoan the sales of Angel Di Maria, Danny Welbeck, and Javier Hernandez.
There is a reasonable point in there, but Mourinho’s penchant for melodrama often pushes him into overstatement. Asked whether he could restore United’s glory days, he said: “Forget it. It is not possible. Don’t try to go 10, 20 years ago because it’s not possible.”
Ten, 20 years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson would never have spoken like this. With a point to make about transfers, he would have avoided this level of negativity. One of his phobias was giving easy hits to those looking for signs of stress. Which is why he would rub his face before press conferences and project an air of authority.
This is not Mourinho’s style, which is fair enough. But it seems an odd way to pursue the ultimate objective. For three years, United’s transfer policy has been chaotic, from the over-spend on Paul Pogba to the recruitment of too many average (by United’s standards) players.
A strong personal impression is that Mourinho was shocked by how little he had to work with when he arrived last summer. The counter-argument, often heard, is that United have spent hundreds of millions on players since Ferguson retired. But a £150 million splurge of the sort they tried last summer cannot walk on to a pitch and correct three years’ worth of errors.
Mourinho seems to be saying that this is the best he can do with this squad. This is: 1, probably correct; and 2, a dangerous game, because he was hired to improve this United team, not constantly diagnose faults or spread negativity.
We ought to go through his gripes. Monday’s return to Stamford Bridge was no happy homecoming as United lost Ander Herrera to a red card, Mourinho traded barbs with some Chelsea fans who called him “Judas” and his team went out of the FA Cup. “Play on Monday with 10 men, enjoying five hours on the M6 coming back to Manchester,” he objected.
But he was only just warming up. The Rostov game annoyed him so much he used a banana to make a point about his team’s depleted energy levels. “For some it was a funny situation, the banana story. I don’t think it’s a funny situation,” he said. “When I watch marathons and people go to their limit, I don’t think it is funny, and I don’t think it’s funny some of my players in six weeks play 11 matches.”
Surely that was it? No chance. Then he was accusing the authorities of “not giving a s--- about English teams in European competition” with their crazy scheduling.
Mourinho has now moved into the phase all United managers come to know: he has Roy Keane on his case. “I’ve never heard so much rubbish in my life. Why do we have to listen to that garbage?” Keane said, referring to Mourinho’s complaints about fixtures and fatigue.
Mourinho is entitled to be a middle-age grump, but United fans must wish he would display a bit more positivity – more joie de vivre – in the course of the reconstruction. They will not sympathise with grumbles about motorways and alarm calls.
European failings soon forgotten in madcap Premier League
Premier League football has a talent for wiping Champions League setbacks from the memory – in this case, carrying on as if Leicester City (the rank outsiders in a field of eight) were not the only English club through to the quarter-finals.
This weekend fans will gather at 10 Premier League grounds with few thoughts of English football’s regression in the club game’s finest competition. Many will have grown bored with wondering how Manchester City could concede six goals over two legs against Monaco, or why Arsenal hit the wall in the second round for a seventh time in a row. The domestic show goes madly on.
The familiar presence of three Spanish clubs and two from Germany – as well as Monaco and Juventus – should give cause for contemplation. But it will not, which is part of the problem. ‘English’ teams are currently not set up to thrive in Europe.
A cosmopolitan universe, the Premier League is also inward-looking. It prefers entertainment and intensity to status on the continent. It is missing out.
Jermain Defoe's age no argument against deserved England call-up
No reason exists to deny Jermain Defoe a place in the England squad to play Germany. The card used against him is age – 34 – on the grounds that England must “build for the future”, as if the present is taking care of itself.
Well, the present is not taking care of itself, as Gareth Southgate reminded his players this week in a welcome slap-down of ego and myth.
Defoe, who last wore England colours in 2013, has scored 14 times for Sunderland in 27 league games. Only a good striker could register that many times for the league’s bottom team. His presence allows Southgate to send a message to anyone thinking he might be running a cosy operation.
With Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley playing poker on contracts, Everton are stuck in the gap between being a big club who can hold on to their best players and a mid-range one who are constantly having to replace lost stars. All they can do for now is aspire to Southampton’s level of scouting to keep good players rolling in.
Journalists are on shaky ground bemoaning big game ticket allocations (we do work there), but giving 24,500 of the 66,000 seats at this year’s Champions League final in Cardiff to “sponsors, officials and corporate hospitality” is lamentable. Only 18,000 will go to each club. It is the most important contest in club football, not a junket.