Jose Mourinho's 'spin' doesn't hide the hard work ahead for Man United
Rafa Benitez famously commented that "Football is a lie." I wouldn't go quite that far, but it's pretty obvious to me that so much of the game is "spin." Often, the very same event, viewed from different perspectives, can be read and defined in so many ways.
Watching Jose Mourinho after Man United won the Europa League drove the point home. It felt as if he was an actor in someone else's play. I don't mean it in a negative way, either. He has little choice. We like very simple, black-and-white narratives and he's been hammered with the same, easy-to-understand-but-difficult-to-explain themes for the past two months.
"Does winning the Europa League -- and thereby qualifying for the Champions League -- mean the season is a success?"
Mourinho, perhaps the most "mediatic" of managers, dances the dance with the best of them. So he spins.
The trophies become three because he also won the League Cup and the Charity Shield. Now, when he includes the Charity Shield as a "trophy," he's well aware that it will polarize. And he knows perfectly well that it's essentially a preseason game (against Leicester) and to get there, he didn't need to lift a finger (Louis Van Gaal did the heavy lifting by winning the FA Cup). But it counts. It's part of the narrative. It sells. So roll with it.
(He did stop short of calling it a Treble-winning season, possibly because he actually won two legitimate Trebles and there's no point in devaluing those.)
The whole narrative of turning Manchester United's season into some kind of underdog tale -- because of the injuries, because of the fixture list, because of the Premier League not scheduling games at a time that suits him, because of the crummy players he inherited from Louis van Gaal -- is another obvious example of this.
It's not that it's incorrect (United did play a lot of games and faced a lot of hurdles) but rather it's devoid of context or any kind of factual analysis, starting with whether his competitors had it better or worse. And because it's Mourinho speaking, the reaction from many is purely binary. To his enemies, he's a whining crybaby; to his acolytes, he's the miracle man.
And as for whether the year was a success? Well, let's ask Mourinho.
"I think the season was really good. A victory for pragmatics, a victory for the humble people, people that respect opponents, that try to stop opponents' qualities and try to exploit opponents' weakness," he said. "[The season] was based on pragmatism; not poets, but humble people."
Again, for his critics, it's an alley-oop. To which poets is he referring? We can only speculate, but you'd imagine it's the shaven-headed guy across town from him, the gangly emotional Jurgen Klopp down the M62 and the lanky, bespectacled professorial type in North London. All of whom, as of now, have a big fat goose egg in the trophy count for 2016-17.
So we're left with the same stale diatribe.
If you like Mourinho, then it's job done because they got into the Champions League and won two (three?) trophies -- that counts much more than the poets and their hot air. If you don't, he's deluded and dishonest because he oversaw the second-worst league finish at the club since 1990, one that saw him finish 24 points behind the champions with one of the most expensively assembled squads in history.
And never the twain shall meet.
A more interesting point is how Mourinho himself views the campaign: what he learned from it, how he lived it and how far along he thinks he is in what has to be his real objective, winning the Premier League or Champions League. We can only speculate here because he won't give a full and frank answer. (Nor should he, by the way: in the world of spin, brutal honesty equates to self-harm.) He did offer a little glimpse though, which again you take with a grain of salt.
"In a bad season where at times I felt my team was the worst team in the world, when at times I felt I was the worst manager in the world, we managed to win three trophies," he said.
I don't know which part he wants us to believe. Was it a bad season? (He just finished telling us it was a good season.) Where there really times when he felt his team was the worst team in the world? (Allowing for hyperbole, that's plausible, I guess. At least the worst team he has managed since leaving Porto, sure.) Were there times when he felt he was the worst manager in the world? (Nope: even allowing for exaggeration, it's really, really difficult to believe Mourinho felt this way.) As for winning three trophies, let's not reopen that can of worms...
If the above is a public acknowledgement of his own fallibility and self-doubt, then it's certainly a novelty. The guy who's been cocky about everything now admitting he occasionally has self-esteem issues is a serious development.
My sense is that what Mourinho truly believes about United's 2016-17 season is something he won't share with anyone (OK, he might tell Rui Faria). And the parameters he's using to judge the campaign, contrary to the image he likes to portray, aren't about the two (three?) trophies or even the Champions League. Rather, they're about how he's transitioning towards building a side that can win the big trophies in England and Europe and restore the lustre of the Sir Alex Era.
Mourinho landed in Manchester a few months after his traumatic divorce from Chelsea, a club with whom he genuinely felt a bond and a split that also represented the first abject failure of his career. He made four expensive signings: one of them raw (Eric Bailly), one of them short term (Zlatan Ibrahimovic), one of them coming from a wholly different brand of football (Henrikh Mkhitaryan) and one of them burdened by the tag of most expensive player ever (Paul Pogba). He had to transpose these guys on to a badly assembled squad stocked with far too many ordinary players (by his standards, anyway).
Sure, he's still Mourinho and with his pedigree, he probably still believed he could win the league. But he must have known that a more realistic goal of the season was to evaluate the players at his disposal, integrate the newcomers and lay down the framework for what happens next.
Close your eyes. Imagine a dominant United side in the 2018-19 Champions League final. How many players in the current squad do you realistically see? Five? Six? No more than that. And that's counting David De Gea, who could well be on his way.
My guess is Mourinho probably sees the same guys you do, which means there's still a lot of work to be done. And whether he considers 2016-17 a success is contingent on whether he feels he learned enough and transmitted enough to his squad in terms of philosophy and work habits. Only he can answer that question.
Results and trophies? In this case, one way or another, it's all just spin. Or, as Rafa would put it, "a lie."
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.