Complaints about transfer business, criticism of his players, and disappointing pre-season results have been constant themes for Mourinho and United this summer
Jose Mourinho looks set for 'third season syndrome' at Manchester United but with a difference
From “parking the bus” to “the Special One”, Jose Mourinho has shown an ability to expand the footballing lexicon. If he coined those phrases, others are invented because of him. “Third-season syndrome” is a concept created by Mourinho, a theme that things unravel after an all-conquering sophomore campaign.
Manchester United’s troubled pre-season and Mourinho’s surly demeanour and sullen words have lent themselves to suggestions that, as in both spells as Chelsea and his time at Real Madrid, things could take a turn for the worse during his third year.
Yet there is a difference. In each case, it followed a year where the title was secured. Mourinho’s unique take on second-season syndrome, which also incorporated his reigns at Porto and Inter Milan, always involved winning the league. Until he joined United.
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If Mourinho’s brand of management has featured boom and bust, crash and burn, rise and fall, the highs have always tended to be high. United have advanced in his reign, getting 12 extra points, 14 more goals and finishing four places higher last season, but everything is comparative. They finished 19 points behind Manchester City last season, closer to Arsenal than the champions.
As students of Mourinho’s rhetoric are all too aware, he does not exist in a bubble. Comments are loaded and directed at rivals. Some are intended to undermine them, others to excuse his failings and inflate his triumphs.
There was a sense that his mood changed last season when he realised City were too good. A manager who tries to get under Pep Guardiola’s skin allows the Catalan to get under his. One of the most successful managers ever is unused to being second best in one city.
A summer of discontent has followed. Mourinho was warning of a “difficult season” ahead even before United’s pre-season concluded with defeat to Bayern Munich. They have a solitary win, albeit against Real Madrid, with losses to the German champions and Liverpool, plus draws with Club America, San Jose Earthquakes and AC Milan.
Mourinho’s title-winning teams have tended to make flying starts to campaigns. United scarcely seem equipped to emulate them.
Their manager’s dissatisfaction has stemmed from a lack of signings. He has a new third-choice goalkeeper, in Lee Grant, and an injured reserve right-back, in the promising Portuguese Diogo Dalot, but the Brazilian midfielder Fred is the only arrival in immediate first-team contention.
Mourinho’s determination to add an extra central defender and a winger have been constants. In each case, there are legitimate questions if obsessions are necessities. United have five centre-backs already. They only conceded one more goal than City last season. While Jerome Boateng, Harry Maguire or Toby Alderweireld would be upgrades, it is hard to argue that a lack of defensive solidity cost United the title last season.
A quest for Ivan Perisic entails a willingness to sacrifice Anthony Martial. Players and personalities as different as the alienated Frenchman and the new captain Antonio Valencia have been singled out for criticism this summer. A recurring theme of his reign at United is how many footballers Mourinho has turned on in public and how often; he feels forever disenchanted.
The absence of some of United’s World Cup players has been another gripe, even if Mourinho appears to have ignored the reality that his peers have been similarly affected. While many can spend the close season indulging in harmless optimism, Mourinho seems to have brought a feelbad factor to Old Trafford.
Perhaps it is a smokescreen to camouflage United’s challenge. Perhaps, as in Spain, he will depose Guardiola to become the champion. But perhaps it is another strand of third-season syndrome, where it goes wrong before it has gone spectacularly right.