Do you know the way, José?

Football Manager 2017 is hard. I’ve managed two teams so far – West Bromwich Albion and Marseille – and been sacked by both. It seems that, without constant attention to tactical minutiae, an iron-clad training regime and a telepathic understanding with your players, you’re on a hiding to nothing with Sports Interactive’s latest release. It’s just not like the good old days, when you could find a formation, settle on it and watch your players conquer all before them.

I wonder if José Mourinho feels the same about Premier League football at the moment? Manchester United currently sit 11 points off the top of the table and, unlike his predecessors David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, he cannot convincingly make a case that he has an ageing, declining squad or an unfinished project, decimated by injuries, at his disposal.

Mourinho spent £150m in the summer, including world-record signing Paul Pogba, yet United have failed to record a victory against any side higher than 10th in the league table, a shoddy record considering the season has just ticked into its most hectic month, December.

Optimists will have you believe that there are signs of the squad gelling, that it’s still early days, and that may be true – but results aren’t forthcoming, and United may already be out of a title race they looked dead certs to be key figures in as recently as early September.

In United’s last 10 games, they’ve won two, drawn five and lost three, scoring 12 and conceding 14. Over a full season, that’s not quite relegation form, but it certainly should be enough to cause concern – whether you take bad luck or inspired goalkeepers into account or not.

Has José taken on too big a job?

jose-mourinho-man-united-178149

Confusion with team selection

The summer months may seem a long time ago now, but United won each of their first three league games. A large factor in this was a settled side. Between the opening game at Bournemouth and United’s third game of the season at Hull, Mourinho made just one change to his starting XI, bringing in Pogba – suspended for the Bournemouth game – in place of Ander Herrera for Southampton’s visit to Old Trafford.

Since then, Mourinho’s selection policy has been at best experimental and at worst baffling; the Portuguese admitted that starting an unfit Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the Manchester City defeat was a mistake, but that experience seems to have affected José’s thinking, with United only fielding an unchanged side once since. While fielding Ashley Young to counter Liverpool’s wide threat at Anfield worked to an extent, starting a lethargic Pogba and Marouane Fellaini in defeats at Watford and Chelsea backfired spectacularly.

Mourinho’s poor league form has meant that he’s had to prioritise the cups, so even when United do find the correct formula – as in Thursday’s mauling over Feyenoord – he has to rotate to protect against fatigue three days later.

Arguments with players

Mkhitaryan is the most obvious victim of Mourinho’s erratic man management at Old Trafford so far, but the treatment of two of the club’s great young hopes has been – to fans – both needless and petty. Why do Luke Shaw – still only seven league games into his return from a year-long injury absence – and Anthony Martial bear the brunt of the blame for defensive mistakes and poor performances when Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, often lethargic and uninspired, continue to play every minute?

And what of the U-turn on Bastian Schweinsteiger? Whatever you think of the German and the likelihood of him ever getting a run of games for the club again, ask yourself this: did Sir Alex Ferguson ever renegade on a promise never to pick a player in a Manchester United squad again? Ask Jaap Stam, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy, among others.

Whether he’s dropping Shaw and Martial, nailed-on members of the first XI in August, or recalling Schweini, you could make the case that Mourinho’s making it up as he goes along.

Relationship with the media

During his first spell at Chelsea, Mourinho was ‘the Special One’ – he could do no wrong in the eyes of journalists, unlike his arch-nemesis over at Liverpool, Rafa Benitez. Similarly, in his second spell after returning from Real Madrid, despite water in the form of an eye poke on Tito Vilanova having gone under the bridge, the press were still prepared to give Mourinho an ell. They lauded his title winners, despite them being arguably the most negative side to claim the league in the Premier League era, and defended his increasingly childish behaviour.

But all that has changed now (with the exception of Duncan Castles, of course). Whether that’s due to José now being associated with the most hated club in the land or not is up for discussion, but witness the atmosphere surrounding his recent sending off against West Ham for kicking a bottle. Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and, hell, even Louis van Gaal have shown similar passion and frustration on the touchline in the past and have been defended by the press pack, but there seemed to be widespread condemnation of Mourinho’s behaviour on Sunday. One thing is for certain: the Portuguese is no longer the media’s golden child.

Conclusion

I’m still behind Mourinho, and I still think that, given an upturn in attitude and the correct team selection, he can give himself the best chance of success at Old Trafford. As with van Gaal, the team has shown flashes of what it can do, most notably in home successes against Leicester, Feyenoord and Southampton. But there have also been some woeful performances. Chelsea was up there with some of the most spineless United performances I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, while Watford left me depressed for days. The opening third of the season has been poor for Mourinho, frustrating for fans and embarrassing for certain players, for the reasons outlined above. It might sound entitled, but United expect better.

 

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Do you know the way, José?

notes on watching The Apprentice

“all I care about is money and power”

The opening scenes paint a flash of London City: rising, whirling views of Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street, smart slick polished shoes emerging onto the pavement from black cabs and wax people rushing through wax carpets and swirling doors. The attitude adopted by the show’s contestants is something I find extremely worrying. The show exemplifies and rampantly encourages the idea that all of life is one mammoth competition, of individuals living under the spell of some massive, invisible lie, fighting against each other for nothing other than shining packets of money.

“we’re just gonna have to wing it”

This quote emerged at the very start of the ‘tasks’ part of the show, in which the group of budding entrepreneurs is divided into two competitive groups, each aiming to out-sell the other. The question arises: just who in business isn’t winging it? Yanis Varoufakis makes the astounding point that in the lead-up to the financial crash in 2008, RBS were employing 2,000 Risk Analysts in the UK. Not a single one of them was able to forecast the toxicity pregnant in the US mortgage securities market.

A friend of mine has recently been appointed to a key position at a consultancy firm, and a key part of his role is to evaluate a bank. In his own words, he ‘doesn’t know a fucking thing about banks’. In defence of both my friend and RBS, the very nature of business, and the sheer speed with which capital feeds and then bursts on from one station to another means that it is very difficult for anyone to have a real good grasp of what is going on, at any one time. The old phrase, calm within the eye of the storm takes on a new meaning here: those working in the thick heat of money and business are those who are least able to detach themselves from it, and to view the workings of that world with some degree of objectivity. My friend didn’t ask to be appointed to the bank-analyst position: his company simply moved him there, and it’s now upto him to do the job, winging it or not. But there is a further point here, a point I feel which rests latent in The Apprentice’s plugging of well-dressed, good-looking professionals in its introductory passage. The very thick heat of business and money necessitates and attitude of winging it, and this is an attitude that is often glorified within the workplace: being able to run without feet, to tie up a job or a deal without truly understanding the precious detail involved.

There’s also the harrowing coincidence of the show’s opening credits – the coincidence being that the same music used to introduce the show, Profokiov’s Dance of the Knights, was also the same music used by The Smiths to introduce themselves to stage in the ‘80s. The implications of this for popular culture are so thumping obvious that I need not spell it all out. It’s much more than a mere shame that a piece of cultural terrain once owned by a group of everyman misfits intent on writing the music and literary establishments into history is now the plaything of media directors, in charge of a reality TV show in which contests fight against each other to win an entrepreneur’s money.

notes on watching The Apprentice

war

the web is spun

the fingers run

on splintered bone

a soldier’s gun

 

inks scripture rite

in fading light

the keys are hid

a smothered fight

 

where masters play

an earthy clay

blindfolded men

the dead are laid

 

sandy pockets

plug silent sockets

raging sides

missile rockets

 

line our grounds

marching sounds

pay to office

flags fly proud

 

lead kids to dust

on misplaced trust

to crazy acts

of insane lust

war

Lest we forget: remembrance is fine, but can we just keep it away from sport?

I don’t like American sports, and I don’t make a habit of watching them. I’ve read Moneyball, but I have to admit that, when it came to the technical jargon, I didn’t really understand what Michael Lewis was on about. I question whether British people can really ‘enjoy’ watching NFL and NBA, whether Josh, 29, from Nottingham is really a Boston Celtics fan or whether his girlfriend just picked up a green snapback the last time she went to Footasylum.

Anyway, the weirdest thing about sport over the pond – weirder even than wide receivers constantly feeling the need to ‘bump chests’ and grown men arguing about who has the best ‘slugging percentage’ – is the furious patriotism espoused by the majority involved.

The quarterback Colin Kaepernick attracted controversy a few months back by kneeling during the national anthem – a gesture designed to highlight the perceived negative treatment of African-American people by police. Instead of actually discussing the issue behind the gesture, conservative commentators clambered over each other to express just how much Kaepernick hated America.

Kaepernick’s example was notable not just for the thinking behind it, but also because it was an exception; his peers usually stand, hand on hearts, flanked by shaven-headed men in fatigues as the Star Spangled Banner is blurted out pre-game by the wife of an ex-serviceman. It’s like porn for patriots, and it’s strange for us in the UK to watch, because we don’t quite indulge in the same zealotry when it comes to sport.

Or do we? The events of the last couple of weeks would suggest otherwise.

poppyshirt

The row between the FA and FIFA over whether England and Scotland should be allowed to wear poppies for their game on 11th November is tedious, but it highlights just how tetchy the nation has become over the whole issue of remembrance. As several have highlighted, the little red flower wasn’t adopted on the shirts of Premier League clubs until 2010, while England have played plenty of games on Armistice Day in the past without visibly commemorating the war dead on their playing kit.

Now we have a situation where teams are wearing poppies towards the end of October; where a player is being openly vilified for refusing (with good reason) to wear one and where clubs are entrenched in a game of one-upmanship, coming up with fresh new ways to ‘pay their respects’. The poppy is a symbol and, like most symbols, it can represent a number of things. To many on these shores, it references the sacrifices made by the British war dead, particularly in the two world wars, but to others, especially abroad, it is an emblem of the very worst excesses of British nationalism.

So why has this patriotism permeated into the Premier League, in effect an international product? You have to wonder what the likes of Ahmed Musa, of Nigeria, and Argentina’s Claudio Yacob thought as they glided across the poppy-gilded pitch at the King Power at the weekend, not to mention the global audience who the clubs usually try so hard to appease. Just as we might see the singing of the Star Spangled Banner at every US sporting fixture as over the top, Premier League viewers overseas may look upon the weekend’s gestures of remembrance as overly exuberant, excessive and, ultimately unnecessary.

If you’re a fan, by all means remember the fallen however you like. Stop, however, making silly demands of this sport we all cherish: a footballer born in the late ’80s does not owe it to you to conform, or in any other way to be an embodiment of your morality. Remembrance should be an individual, voluntary gesture, not something we have to force upon others – surely, if we do that, it loses its meaning altogether?

Lest we forget: remembrance is fine, but can we just keep it away from sport?