Inserting one letter can change a great deal. It is a couple of years since Jose Mourinho, the self-styled “Special One”, was first branded “the Special Once”. It is a nickname that feels ever likelier to catch on. The Manchester United manager’s past is undeniably brilliant. A present framed by a wretched defeat at Brighton & Hove Albion is altogether bleaker.
The knee-jerk reaction was to proclaim it the worst performance of the Portuguese’s reign, perhaps even since Alex Ferguson retired. Without conducting a forensic performance of too many lamentable days under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, the bigger concern should be that, abject as United’s were, it was not so much a new low as a familiar one. Perhaps the worst of all remains the 3-1 loss at Watford in 2016, but that was barely six weeks after Mourinho’s first match. Yet much of the competition is more recent: the losses to all three promoted clubs last season were awful, the Uefa Champions League exit to Sevilla hideous.
If the classic Mourinho teams had such a virtual immunity to shocks, the current one are ever more prone to them, to the extent they scarcely rank as surprises. It is a sign expectations have been lowered. United have lost five of their past 16 league games which, after three defeats in the previous 26, shows regression. It supports the theory Mourinho’s teams are at their best in the first half of his second seasons at a club. If the Portuguese’s past at Old Trafford was brighter than the present, even that peak only secured second spot.
Since then, United have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mourinho’s weekend began with the jibe at Manchester City that “you can’t buy class”. The champions, 6-1 winners over Huddersfield Town, then demonstrated class on the pitch. Mourinho spoke in the summer of facing a “difficult” season and seems to be proving himself right. With his lengthy, and ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of centre-backs, he gave the impression his current defenders are not good enough. Suitably undermined, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, two of his recruits, were duly dreadful at Brighton.
Andy Mitten: Misery for Mourinho as uninspired Man United lose at Brighton
Premier League team of the week: Philippines goalkeeper Etheridge makes history
Manchester United's Paul Pogba: 'There are things that I cannot say'
Mourinho: Second with Manchester United in 2017/18 is one of my biggest achievements
Mourinho looks set for 'third season syndrome' at Manchester United but with a difference
United have been belittled by their manager, in the manner of a man looking to get his excuses in early. Mourinho has taken an active interest in City’s and Liverpool’s spending, while conveniently overlooking his own. He has implied his team cannot compete, something their performance in Sussex suggested.
So it is worth underlining that United’s starting XI, even with Andreas Pereira standing in for Nemanja Matic, cost over £400 million (over Dh1.8 billion). It was not evident in their performance, but then that is part of the problem. Too often Mourinho’s United look less than the sum of their expensive parts and players do not play to their considerable potential. The Portuguese hints that this is not truly his side, that he was denied his additions, but he made more summer signings than Mauricio Pochettino or Pep Guardiola. The Catalan missed out on Jorginho and Jurgen Klopp on Nabil Fekir, so Mourinho is not alone in being denied some of his major targets. These are not special circumstances. Rather than passing the buck, Mourinho could do with taking more responsibility.
His sullen streak can be reflected in his team. There can be a joylessness to United, functional when winning and morose when not. Some at United, both among the powerbrokers and in the fanbase, accepted the Faustian pact of employing Mourinho, accepting the football might not be thrilling, but recognising the importance of winning, both because of the post-Ferguson slide and because Guardiola was materialising on the other side of Manchester.
Yet if there was never a great deal of warmth in the relationship, it feels ever colder. Mourinho was United’s pragmatic choice, but there is little pragmatic in a £400 million side losing to Brighton, especially if it is not a one-off. After talking United down, Mourinho is now letting them down.