By Bill Thomas
We can all argue forever and a day over whether we reckon Jose Mourinho genuinely is the “Special One” or not, but what I think he has proven beyond doubt, certainly in terms of English football, is that he is the shrewdest one.
For he has turned the same trick at Manchester United that he managed at Chelsea. Win the first competition you can – the League Cup. Perhaps they were fortunate to beat Southampton, perhaps the League Cup doesn’t carry the greatest prestige. Perhaps.
But what it does do is give your fans a day out at Wembley and it gives them a little bit of silverware that they can enjoy. And with that, you cement your relationship with the crowd who are going to play an important part in keeping you in position. They start to believe in you, because at the first possible opportunity, you have delivered for them. That plays a big part in quietening any doubts before they can start reverberating around the social media echo chamber, a place where reputations can be shredded in moments.
Mourinho has paid real respect to the League Cup this term, just as he has the Europa League, a competition he persistently dismissed as beneath his dignity when Benitez won it for Chelsea. For he knew from day one that, however much money he had pumped into the United squad, the Premier League was always likely to be beyond them this term and that the cup competitions, especially those two, would offer him his best opportunity of winning something in his first season.
He understands just how important trophies are, far more so than any other manager with the possible exception of his long-term successor at Chelsea, Antonio Conte, who is similarly motivated by collecting cups.
Trophies, whichever ones they are, buy a manager time, albeit not that much as Claudio Ranieri and even Mourinho himself would testify. Arsen Wenger is a perfect example of that, having quelled the unrest at Arsenal for a couple of years with those two FA Cup triumphs but having failed to add to that last term, the hounds are on the scent of the Frenchman once again. It could be that even an FA Cup victory for Arsenal won’t be enough to keep Wenger at the Emirates next term, but ending the season empty handed this time must just be too much for him and the club to bear. Mourinho has been clever enough to insulate himself from any such criticism by already having a cup to his name.
It’s an approach that, in hindsight, Jurgen Klopp might have found instructive. Liverpool are now five years without a trophy. Given that they aren’t going to win the Premier League this term, that figure is going to extend to six at least. For a club of their stature, that is way, way too long, a disgrace as some elements of their support have termed it.
While there is no sense that the Kop is turning on Klopp, questions are being asked. After all, in a 16 year managerial career, he has delivered just two league titles. That suggests he has plenty still left to prove, doubts he could have addressed this term, buying himself the time that Mourinho so shrewdly has at United. Liverpool were in the League Cup semi-final and carelessly blew it. Worse, they simply tossed off the FA Cup. Fine if you are worried about a fixture backlog, but this season, Liverpool, like Chelsea, have had the advantage of not being in Europe.
Where Conte has capitalised on that legacy, forging ahead in the FA Cup as well as the league, you can’t help but feel Klopp has squandered it.