Another day, another Manchester United performance that manages, just about, to postpone the coming crisis for at least another game. If Arsenal had thrashed them, as we all knew was possible, then chaos would have ensued. They didn’t, so it didn’t. Afterwards, Jose Mourinho hailed — well, mentioned — United’s four games without defeat. Glory glory, he didn’t add.
How long can United repeat this trick of not quite melting down, given their increasingly vinegary manager and their stretched and imbalanced squad? That’s going to be the big question at Old Trafford this season, not least because “Will they win anything?” is answerable only with laughter. Kicking the can down the road is a footballing skill, if only metaphorically. And that, apparently, will have to do.
Of course, and not as bad as it could have been must never be mistaken for actually good. United have landed in a curious place where despite their talented players, their oft-stated ambitions, and the torrent of cash that passes through the club, they now draw praise for fulfilling the most basic of footballing requirements.
“They’re running around quite a lot!” Hooray. “They look a bit like they have an attacking plan, sort of, if you squint a bit!” Well done them. “They haven’t lost!” Nice one.
“Not losing” should be a given for United, but since they don’t always manage it, they get cookies when they do. And not losing is always going to be better than losing. That’s the first lesson of applied tactics.
But another part is the strange way in which expectations have curdled around the club. United, after drawing with Arsenal, sit eighth in the table. They are 18 points behind leaders Manchester City, and eight behind Chelsea in fourth. They have a negative goal difference. When they’re good to watch, they’re a mess, and when they’re bad, they’re a boring mess. If they win a cup this season it will be by accident, and if they qualify for the Champions League it will be a miracle.
And yet there is little overt hostility towards Mourinho beyond the internet, which is hostile to everybody. The mood, if one can make sweeping generalisations about something so sprawling and self-contradictory as perhaps the largest fanbase in the world, is one of frustrated resignation rather than anything more destructive. Nothing’s on fire. That seems odd.
One obvious and oft-suggested cause of all this is Mourinho himself, who since arriving at the club has devoted most of his energy to ensuring that whatever happens on the pitch, you know that it isn’t his fault. Also that he couldn’t be doing any better. Also that nobody else could be doing any better. He is, apparently, managing Manchester United in the same way that a man stuck outside is managing the weather: there’s nothing he can do beyond putting on a coat and making a sour face.
But if we look beyond the idea that the fanbase (yes, yes) has swallowed Mourinho’s underwhelming Kool-Aid, it perhaps makes more sense to think of the manager not as a cause but as another symptom. This is a club resting on debt, directed by a man with little footballing knowledge or interest, on behalf of others with the same. Manchester United is club that exists simply as a nexus of association, as a smiling partner in the business of selling tractors or noodles or whatever it is this week.
As far as we can tell, United don’t have a fish partner. Given Cantona’s love of sardines and Roy Keane’s loathing for dead fish, you’d think they would look into it. In any case, another piscine metaphor fits here: the club is rotting from the head down. And calling Mourinho rude names isn’t going to change that.
So why aren’t United fans angrier with the owners, then? Well, they tried that during the takeover in 2005. But the FA waved it through, the takeover went ahead, and Alex Ferguson shrugged and got on with things. And then some fans went and formed their own club, and others spat on the floor and vowed never to enter Old Trafford again.
The point is not that United deserve any particular sympathy or attention; there are, of course, many football clubs in much greater existential peril making far less noise about it. The point is that the state of things now was birthed in the state of things then. The real battle was lost years ago.
(There is an interesting point of contrast provided here with United’s women’s team, which — after years of Glazer apathy — came back into existence this season and is currently tearing the Championship into tiny pieces. Whether the two teams have similar decision-making teams behind them will, perhaps, become clear if the women’s team win promotion — which seems likely — and how they then get on in the Super League.)
Are there managers who could make United’s men’s team better than Mourinho is doing? Probably. Better to watch? Definitely. But if the club appoints one, after the run of David Moyes through Louis Van Gaal and on to Mourinho, who was a semi-broken man when they lit upon him, then it will be by accident. And it’ll be another series of accidents if they buy them the right players.
In this context, then, there is little point getting too exercised about Mourinho, or the players, or, well, any of it really. United’s men’s side is not a serious football team, hasn’t been for years now, and nobody involved shows any sign of working to change that. Why would anybody engage with them as if they were?
Frankly, it can sometimes seem as though Mourinho has the right idea, tedious and self-basting though he is. Of course the view could be better. But ultimately, there’s nothing to do except pull one’s hood up, and wait for the rain to pass. Nobody ever dried themselves out by shouting at the clouds.