They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of the one above, you can probably start the count when it hits the millions, such is the volume of analysis, musing and reporting that will be and has been scribed about the events unfolding within it. It’s a picture which presents the intersection of two footballing narratives, narratives which have bumped each other in the road indirectly for the past two, even three years.
On one side, we have the surprisingly still ever-popular odyssey of José, which looks to be experiencing somewhat of a death rattle in the last few months. A disgruntled footballing dinosaur raging against the dying of the light, so stuck in a bygone era that he doesn’t realise he is very much the ‘same coach with different players’ that he will spitefully retort should you question his outdated methods.
Something happens to fresh, smiley José once the honeymoon period is over and the memories of early reign, counter-attacking wins over big clubs are starting to fade.
On the other side is the “P.E. Teacher” himself, Ole Gunnar Solskjær – football’s in-joke and constant target for the ire of footballing hipsters who, in the face of any evidence to the contrary, will still manoeuvre their way around even a modicum of praise for the Norwegian.
The picture, taken after Manchester United’s 3-1 victory against Tottenham Hotspur last Sunday, sees Ole Gunnar Solskjær gleefully congratulating Luke Shaw just metres from a grisly José Mourinho.
Shaw, who has been experiencing the best form of his somewhat stumbling career so far, is a key signpost at the aforementioned intersection. As Mourinho continues in his old pattern of deflecting blame from himself and throwing his own players under the bus, much like we saw later in his spell with United, it is worth remembering his treatment of Shaw while at Old Trafford.
‘He [Shaw] had a good performance but it was his body with my brain’, said Mourinho after a draw with Everton in April 2017. ‘He was in front of me, and I was making every decision for him. The communication was possible because we were very close. I was thinking for him, when to close inside, when to open, when to press the opponent, I was making every decision for him’.
Added to Jose’s constant questioning of the left-back’s ability to play through injury (he wasn’t the only one to receive this criticism) and general doubt from the Portuguese over his commitment to training, it plots out an all too familiar pattern.
Mourinho tropes long-known to fans at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford are now becoming all too clear to Spurs fans who are rapidly beginning to wonder if a potential Carabao Cup – which would be the club’s first trophy since winning it as the formerly known Carling Cup in 2008 – is simply worth the soul-draining football that’s seemingly incompatible with today’s game and players.
If it were just that, maybe. But something happens to fresh, smiley José once the honeymoon period is over and the memories of early reign, counter-attacking wins over big clubs are starting to fade. Dark clouds gather and follow him wherever he goes; every press conference has the potential for needle and the overcompensating recall of his overall record as a manager, compared to that of the pedigree of his players.
Football, on and off the pitch, becomes unbearable under the artist formerly known as ‘The Special One’ – a chore fans of his clubs slowly begin to become apathetic towards. That, or they actively hope for their own football team to lose given that it might accelerate his exit.
Contrast this with Solskjaer, who has often been openly mocked for his perceived “getting a smile on people’s faces” approach. Easy though it may be to guffaw at the idea of this actually being a big factor in making a football team, it’s hard to ignore players like Shaw and Pogba, who the current Spurs manager failed to get a tune from.
Of course, Ole’s qualifications and talents as a manager extend beyond such simplifications, but maybe backing your players in the media spotlight, rather than openly criticising them, is actually more conducive to building a functioning, cohesive football team?
It’s a wild concept in today’s age of xG and heatmaps, but almost all the managerial greats of the modern era have had this ability to some degree. José had it too, that’s what makes today’s incarnation of the once suave and charming serial winner all the more puzzling. Somewhere along the way, he became absorbed by self-preservation. It’s almost as if he can see his impending doom coming earlier and earlier as he adds yet another club to his CV. That’s when, perhaps while there’s still a chance of his team’s redemption, the campaign of blaming others begins in order to show himself in a good light for his potential new employers.
It’s an arduous cycle, and pity that the players and fans subjected to it.