The last few seasons in the Premier League have witnessed a shift of power from what used to be known as the Top 4 comprising Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool to the reality of the Big 6 comprising the Top 4 plus Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.
Not only has the Top 4 expanded, the teams that primarily challenged for the title or played the most exciting football have changed from the old guard that was Man. United, Chelsea and Arsenal to Man. City, Tottenham, and Liverpool – the latter two more for playing exciting football.
This shift has occurred due to the latter three embracing managers/coaches who set their teams up in the modern method of football management which believes that attack is the best form of defence while also making sure its teams can play out from the back and are capable of inflicting fatally blistering counterattacks.
It is based on these that Man. City were a level above the rest of the league last season, and which allowed Liverpool progress all the way to the final in the UEFA Champions League before losing to a vastly more experienced Real Madrid side playing (and winning) a fourth European Cup final match in five years.
The steady rise of City, Liverpool, and Spurs has consequently seen United, Chelsea, and Arsenal relatively struggle, leading to Antonio Conte and Arsène Wenger exiting their respective posts at Chelsea and Arsenal to make way for two managers in Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery who also believe in the modern attacking football philosophy.
Sarri’s Chelsea look to have adapted quickly to the former Napoli boss’s method following three wins from three league games played while Arsenal’s team have shown signs of getting to terms with Emery’s method which relies more on off-the-ball movement and a high conversion rate in front of goal off efficient possession of the ball.
Bringing us to Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. A winner of league titles in four different leagues and the Champions League with two different clubs, Mourinho works on a pragmatic style which sees his teams in a solid, hard-to-break-down set-up and expected to grind out results because, whether a team wins by five goals or one goal in a match, it would get three points.
It was with that mentality he took FC Porto to an unprecedented Champions League win back in 2004, led Chelsea to a first league title in half a century in 2005, and made Inter Milan the first Italian side to achieve the treble (winning the league, domestic cup, and Champions League) in 2010.
Mourinho’s stock at that period was at such a high, his appointment by Real Madrid seemed destined to create one of the greatest football tales ever. A manager who gets the best out of players now handling a team full of all the best players in every position. But something else had been trailing Mourinho throughout his career and it came to fore at Madrid – his third season syndrome.
The syndrome started at the end of his first spell at Chelsea when he parted company with the club in 2007 following a poor start to the season coupled with disagreement with the club hierarchy.
At Inter Milan, despite being ahead of the rest, Mourinho found himself ingrained to a toxic battle with a number of other coaches including Carlo Ancelotti, Luciano Spaletti, and Marcelo Lippi.
Mourinho would end up leaving Inter Milan for the riches and seemingly assured success at Real Madrid in 2010. One could even argue that Mourinho’s motivation for taking on the high-pressure Madrid role was to prove to anyone that he would win no matter the odds.
However, the problem for Mourinho was that at Madrid, he was at a club which did not and would never consider itself as an underdog with a point to prove. Madrid has always been a club used to success to the extent of finishing second in the league or reaching the latter stage of the Champions League – a success for most other clubs – would be considered a failure at Madrid from the club’s hierarchy to its fans.
Failing to see this or stubbornly keeping his underdog spirit, Mourinho’s time at Madrid would see him constantly fighting against the club’s powerful hierarchy as well as its senior players, leading to him losing key players and eventually losing on most occasions to arch-rivals, Barcelona, which was then managed by Pep Guardiola.
Mourinho had parted ways with Madrid by the end of his third season there, making a return to his beloved Chelsea for a second stint which led to a league title in his second season, promptly restoring his underdog attitude and causing a defiant meltdown even quicker than his first stint.
But he’d won a league title and Manchester United were desperately in need of a manager that fit its global profile having endured three underwhelming seasons in the post-Alex Ferguson years with David Moyes and Louis van Gaal that only produced a League Cup and saw the Red Devils fail to qualify for the Champions League in two of the three seasons.
Mourinho made an instant impact by winning the Europa League and League Cup, and getting the club back into the Champions League. But Chelsea had won the league in rather commanding fashion under Conte, who got on Mourinho’s nerves with his over-the-top celebrations. Coupled with nemesis, Guardiola, joining City, and Wenger remaining a target for cheeky remarks from Mourinho, all the trappings for another third season meltdown were in place for the Man. United coach.
Being humiliated out of the Champions League by Sevilla coupled with City winning the league in even more commanding manner gave rise to Mourinho appearing bitter at the world yet again for not appreciating his own achievements enough.
Criticism of his style of play which thrives on negating attacking football added fuel to his ‘me against the world’ belief and when the board at Old Trafford refused to grant most of his transfer requests, another third season meltdown became inevitable.
Against Tottenham Hotspur on Monday night, United had the upper hand in the first half but came unstuck following two goals within two minutes by Spurs early in the second half of the game which ended 3-0 in Spurs’ favour and inflicted a second loss in just three games played.
And coming on the back of a disappointing display in the 3-2 loss at Brighton, it’s the cue for the ‘third season’ red flags for Mourinho – staying back at the end of the game to applaud fans, refusing to own up to the defeat by saying the team didn’t lose strategically and tactically, referring to previously won titles while disrespecting all the other top flight coaches, and walking out of the post-match press conference.
At this point, no amount of new players can remedy the situation at United – Spurs did not make a single signing yet have so far won all three league games – as yet again, Mourinho looks set to overlook the issue and instead make United’s predicament an overstretched ‘me against the world’ plot.