While all the adventures seem to be happening on the other side of town right now, perhaps a little context is needed and it is worth pointing out that Manchester United have actually accumulated more points at this stage of the season than in six of the 13 championship-winning years when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge and the Premier League title used to find its way back to Old Trafford like a homing pigeon.
José Mourinho’s team are six points better off, at the 17-game mark, than the treble-winning side of 1998-99 that will always be held up as Ferguson’s greatest work. The current side have outscored Arsenal’s Invincibles from the corresponding stage of the 2003-04 season and achieved the unique feat of being widely derided for anaemic football while, in reality, scoring more goals than the 1995-96 Newcastle side that was managed by Kevin Keegan and had the nickname of “the Entertainers”.
Mourinho’s players have 38 points from 17 games and, to put that into perspective, it is more than Ferguson’s teams had managed at the same stage in 16 out of 27 trophy-laden years. It is also more than Arsène Wenger’s sides managed in two of his three championship seasons and, in any other year, it would do just fine for a team that likes to think it has authentic title ambitions. Liverpool have won the league 18 times but there were only two of those occasions, in 1978-79 and 1987-88, when they had a better record at this stage of a season.
Unfortunately for Mourinho, these are the details that can be overlooked when United are cut adrift in second place and England’s top division has never been in this position so early, with advent calendars barely half-opened and Fairytale of New York on the radio, when the destination of the league title already feels like a foregone conclusion. Mourinho has put together a team that, in ordinary circumstances, would have an outstanding chance. The problem, of course, is that these are not ordinary circumstances, when the team the other side of Mancunian Way have been having so much fun the bookmakers have already started paying out, six months early.
That does not make it impossible for Mourinho, the serial trophy machine, to conjure up a different narrative to take the emphasis away from Manchester City. His trophy haul last season shows he has assembled a formidable cup team. They are competing in three knockout competitions and Mourinho may still fancy the idea of emulating what happened 50 seasons ago – when City won the First Division title and two weeks later Matt Busby’s team trumped them with the European Cup.
The people who have been dancing on the Portuguese’s grave this past week should certainly make sure the coffin is properly nailed down first and Louis van Gaal, in particular, has some nerve criticising his successor when his own time in Manchester was so bland and grey. United, according to Van Gaal, are now playing “far more boring football” and he has questioned why Mourinho is not, in his view, subjected to the same level of criticism. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Mourinho plays so defensively.”
Is he being serious? There was a point in the Van Gaal era, no matter how much he might want us to airbrush it from history, when United had taken fewer shots than every other Premier League club bar the Sunderland side that spent 237 days in the relegation places. United made more backward passes than any other club. They had the lowest percentage when it came to moving the ball forward and, frankly, the players hated it. David de Gea, for one, would not have stuck around if Van Gaal were still in charge. Other players talk of the mood inside the dressing room then as bordering on mutiny.
Mourinho, contrary to the Dutchman’s claims, has also been under intense scrutiny after the sporadic occasions, such as the game at Liverpool earlier this season, when a team once famous around the world for attacking football have not just parked the bus but jammed the handbrake and chucked the keys down the nearest drain.
Equally, it is a nonsense to say the current United side are less watchable, as a rule, than the one Mourinho inherited and anyone suggesting otherwise should perhaps note the fact Van Gaal’s final season saw the team score 49 league goals, when their previous average in the Premier League era was 76.4.
There is no doubt United’s supporters, the people who once produced a banner reading: “Not Arrogant, Just Better,” have known happier times and that the “Park the bus” chants from City’s supporters last Sunday will have cut to the bone. But don’t fall for the oft-repeated line that watching United, under Mourinho, is a permanent bore-fest. It is bordering on absurd when the team have already scored four goals on eight separate occasions this season and are outscoring Keegan’s Newcastle from the year the league title seemed destined for the north-east.
At the same time, any defence of Mourinho would have to accept that his behaviour has been wearing thin for some time now and, knowing the nature of the beast, that it is likely to get even more tiring as long as United are consigned to a game of catch-up and there is hard evidence he has lost his personal battle with Pep Guardiola.
No doubt it is all linked to the reasons why we see so little of the old Mourinho these days and the man who returned to England for his second spell at Chelsea calling himself “the Happy One”. Where has that Mourinho gone these last few years? There was once a time, particularly in his first spell at Stamford Bridge, when a press conference with the Portuguese was one of the week’s highlights and, at his very best, he often gave the impression he could charm the birds down from the eaves. These days, he seems so embittered, so joyless, brooding over everything, storing up his make-believe grievances, staring back through suspicious eyes.
It was there again before the Manchester derby with his sour and apparently premeditated remarks about Guardiola having the temerity to wear a yellow ribbon in support of Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart for their jailing, under suspicion of sedition, as key members of the Catalan independence movement. Mourinho just made himself look small-minded and solipsistic with those comments, and hypocritical, in the extreme, with his follow-up remarks about City’s tactical fouling and alleged diving. He might actually have the semblance of a point but he is taking us for fools if he expects us to forget he is the guy, if this were a game of snooker, who would be standing behind the pocket, chalking his cue and coughing every time his opponent had a shot.
As for what happened after that game, Mourinho’s proclamations that the blame should be heaped exclusively on the players of Manchester City is just the latest occasion when he has brought to mind an old quote from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France. “Jacques Chirac,” he said, “could have his mouth full of jam, his lips can be dripping with the stuff, his fingers covered with it, the pot can be standing open in front of him. And when you ask him if he’s a jam-eater, he’ll say: ‘Me eat jam? Never.’”
Ultimately, though, the point remains that Mourinho, no matter how sticky his fingers, would be getting a lot more slack were it not for the fact that Guardiola has put together such a beautiful body of work just a couple of miles away. Mourinho has been here before with Guardiola’s Barcelona but this time it may be an even bigger challenge. United, unlike Real Madrid, do not have Cristiano Ronaldo to help restore some balance.
Sisu elephant still in room at Coventry
The latest update from Newcastle United about Mike Ashley’s proposed sale of the club sounds like encouraging news for all of us who have wondered over the years how long it might be before a sense of normality breaks out at one of our great old clubs.
Yet Newcastle are not the only club who could desperately do with a change and let’s not forget poor old Coventry City down in League Two and the continuing damage inflicted by the Sisu regime dragging them through a hedge fund backwards.
The last week has seen Sisu chalk up its 10th anniversary at the club but nobody in Coventry was celebrating the milestone. Just as a small example of the expertise brought to the club, these were the bright sparks, remember, who wanted to bring in a “text-a-substitute” option for supporters to make the manager’s decisions during matches.
Coventry were a fine club when I was growing up and a fixture in England’s top division. The last decade has been spent rubbernecking in their direction and can probably be epitomised by the time one of Sisu’s representatives, Onye Igwe, interrupted a board meeting when they were supposed to be discussing the club’s perilous finances to complain that Sky Blue Sam, the mascot, was too fat and not setting a good example to children. “Onye, it’s a fucking elephant” – the response of the former chairman, Ray Ranson – would be a fine title for any book of the Sisu years.
The more important detail is that Sisu’s watch includes the indignity of Coventry making a 68-mile round trip to Sixfields, Northampton Town’s ground, to play “home” matches for just over a season and the relegations that mean “Play up, Sky Blues” is now heard in the fourth tier of English football. It has been, put bluntly, a shambles and the most jarring part is that, unlike Newcastle, the people at the top do not seem to be that concerned about finding a way out. Until that changes, you have wonder what the next 10 years might bring for a once-proud club.
Clough’s novel way to adjust volume
Amid all the talk about Manchester City’s players liking their music at full blast I am reminded of the times when Wimbledon, back in the days of the Crazy Gang, also used to take a few liberties the same way.
Vinnie, Dennis, “Fash” and all the others always liked to make their presence felt – their way of announcing they did not care who they upset – and tried it on at Nottingham Forest one year when, suffice to say, the playlist was a lot different to Brian Clough’s usual choice in his office along the corridor of Frank Sinatra.
With the corridors of the City Ground vibrating, Clough sent his assistant, Alan Hill, to knock on the door of the away dressing room and ask them to turn the music down. Vinnie Jones opened the door wearing nothing but his underpants and nodded at the request. But very soon the music was back at full volume. Hill was sent back a second time, Jones apologised again and exactly the same happened a few minutes later. At which point Cloughie marched into Wimbledon’s dressing room, lifted their ghetto blaster above his head and dropped it on the tiled floor. “Now play your music,” he said, before marching back out. None of the Wimbledon players uttered a word, apparently.