In the last few days, we have heard some very interesting things from Premier League managers. Pep Guardiola had a “Big Club” gaffe when he said that Barcelona or Bayern would have sacked him for a trophy-less season. Last week, Jurgen Klopp was found wondering why Southampton seemed to have relaxed against Arsenal after giving Liverpool a very tough game. When this was followed by Liverpool thrashing West Ham 4-0 at London Stadium, Arsene Wenger wondered aloud about whether some teams (West Ham) are already “on holiday”.
But in terms of airing interesting or unexpected views, no one can beat the Special One and he was not to be outdone by these others. In fact, when Jose says something ridiculous, it is not even unexpected anymore. So, when he claimed last week before the second leg of the Europa League semi-final that he did not believe that he was gambling by focusing solely on the Europa League, it was a bit expected. In fact, out of context that quote sounds like he has his players completely focused on winning the Europa League – the only trophy Manchester United are yet to win. But the truth is that he was ranting about fixture congestion and his side’s injuries and meant to say that he wanted his side depleted side to prioritise Europa League over the remaining Premier League matches.
There is nothing wrong with stating your priorities out loud. But that he did not think it is a gamble is a misreading of the situation. As Celta Vigo (and Rostov and Anderlecht before them) proved in that drawn second leg, decent European sides can trouble Manchester United, a lot. Against Celta, United had fewer shots on target, attempted half the number of passes, and had 33% possession. And all this at Old Trafford. If it was not for impressive 5 saves from Romero, and a highly wasteful Guidetti, Mourinho’s quote would have come to bite him immediately after the match.
What his side faces in Stockholm is a completely different side. Ajax are looking to win a trophy in Europe after a long time and they come into the final with a fine record. Unlike United, who have stumbled past much of the knockout stages by drawing 1-1 and winning 1-0, Ajax have attacked each of their ties and won, despite getting bad scares in both quarter and semi-finals. Ajax are the most prolific scoring side in this season’s Europa League with 24 goals, including 5 goals against the Celta side against which Manchester United barely scraped through to the final. When on fire, like during the first leg against Lyon in the semi-finals, Ajax can bombard the opponent’s goal. They had 24 attempts on Lyon’s goal, 16 of which were on target.
Defending against Ajax is completely different than defending against Celta or Anderlecht. Perhaps that is why while most betting sites are considering United as the favourites, the odds of Ajax lifting the trophy are not as long as they were for Celta to win the semifinal tie. Whether Mourinho agrees or not, his strategy of pursuing Europa League glory at the cost of Premier League is a gamble. Perhaps it is his only choice and it is right to do, but nonetheless it is a gamble as a failure in the final could have many repercussions.
But Jose Mourinho also does not believe that if he fails in the pursuit of Europa League, it will be a failure for his United team. Perhaps his opinion is swayed by the other English team that chased Europa League at the expense of Premier League and failed – Liverpool last season. Last season was still considered a step in the right direction by most Liverpool fans. For most of them, the highlight of the season was Jurgen Klopp’s signing as manager.
Manchester United and Jose have no such luxuries. Having spent more than £200 million on transfers and having purchased some of the best players in Europe in the summer, this season is already an underwhelming one for United. If on top of it, they lose in Stockholm, it is going to be a disappointing season for sure. Again, Jose can believe and opine as he chooses to, but I think the fans will not be very happy with the season.
His last shocking comment came at the end of the Spurs game on Sunday when he called the remaining Premier League matches “unwanted”. The truth is that even after the loss to Arsenal, United had a small chance to finish in top four, provided they showed fight against Spurs. But when the manager has sent out his team thinking that the match is an unwanted diversion, it is difficult for the players to get going, even if they want to. Even when Liverpool were in a similar situation last year, Jurgen Klopp was not found saying that the Premier League matches were unwanted. He played youngsters. He threw the bench in as starters but never did he disparage the league games.
Yes, Jose has been dealt a bad hand. His key striker is injured, as are some of his key midfielders and defenders. But he is still able to call upon players like Pogba, Mata, Mkhitaryan, Rooney and Martial. Objectively speaking, his bench has the talent to compete for top four, especially after the platform that Zlatan had created earlier in the season. But, if the manager does not believe a match is important, players do not really have an incentive in believing so.
I think Jose has played a huge gamble with Manchester United’s season by taking his sights away from top four very early in the campaign. Instead of rotating his side as well as he should have, he has chosen to blame the injuries and absences for his side’s inability to overcome stalemates. And, whether fans consider his first season in charge of Red Devils a successful one or not depends very heavily on whether United can overcome a tough opponent in a neutral venue that can accomodate only 9,100 of their supporters. It is a gamble, a big one.