Jose Mourinho at Manchester United: If he's not winning, what's he good for?
Depending on your allegiance, Jose Mourinho has either been grating for 14 years or only in the past few months. Regardless, it's clear something is agitating him.
If it's aspersions over his tactics, before he plays the "woe is me" card again, he'd do well to listen to the accusations levelled at him. His style of play is analogue in a digital age; this Manchester United incarnation cast in his sullen, dour image. United are difficult to watch and he's even tougher to listen to. It's Louis van Gaal football with added paranoia.
The sore loser's comments after Chelsea did a number on United in the FA Cup final were comical bordering on farcical.
"I am quite curious to know what you say or what people write because if my team plays like Chelsea did, I can imagine what people would say," he said.
Chelsea sat back, soaked up pressure, stuck to a rigid game plan and relied on individual brilliance -- Eden Hazard tormenting a typically slapstick Phil Jones -- to prevail and lift a cup. Sound familiar, Jose? It should do: it's been your go-to game plan for your managerial career.
Bemoaning that Antonio Conte asked his team to lump it to Olivier Giroud and in the next breath rueing the lack of Romelu Lukaku or Marouane Fellaini really was a piece of work. It just doesn't wash and after seeing Manchester City thrill their way to 100 points, 106 goals and a title won by a yawning 19-point margin, the fans' patience is beginning to wear thin.
Mourinho was brought to United in order to lift United back to the top, collecting trophies along the way. His style, a stick to beat him with throughout his career, would be tolerated to a point, as long as the silverware flowed in. If critics claimed United were dull, he'd point to a trophy cabinet glistening with the latest honours.
His first season was a qualified success, a pathetic sixth-place finish largely ignored because United scraped a Europa League trophy to qualify for the Champions League, forever indebted to ex-Manchester City striker John Guidetti's open goal miss for Celta Vigo in the dying seconds of the semifinals. Then Mourinho's men beat Ajax 2-0 in the final, displaying the same tactics he chastised at Wembley.
If that trophy and the EFL Cup papered over the cracks last season, winning the FA Cup at Wembley would have lashed an almighty dollop of industrial plaster on the fissures that fragment Mourinho's team this time around. His Wembley lineup had 32 league goals between them this season... Liverpool's Mohamed Salah has the same on his own.
Despite hundreds of millions spent on sorting the mess Van Gaal and David Moyes left behind, none of the back four were Mourinho signings -- his blind spot for full-backs may be sorted this summer, a year too late -- but the sight of a lumbering Jones toiling in Hazard's slipstream was as jarring as seeing Ashley Young pump balls into the box despite the total lack of a focal point in attack. What, really, was the plan? Crab-like football from side to side, waiting for two committed-but-limited full-backs to blast a cross in for Chelsea to clear.
We're two years into the Mourinho project and his supporters, like himself, will say a second-place finish -- the highest since Sir Alex Ferguson left -- and two trophies amounts to progress. But "improvement" comes with serious caveats about the route taken and where this is all going.
Is there a style? What's his problem with Eric Bailly, the club's best defender? Why does he continue to shirk responsibility in defeat, constantly digging out players despite the clear indication it doesn't work? Lambasting Marcus Rashford for a poor performance at Brighton was hardly the ideal preparation for a 20-year-old who knew he'd be likely starting the FA Cup final with Lukaku in a race to be fit. And so it proved, with Rashford enduring a miserable day at Wembley. Why can't he get a tune out of Anthony Martial? A boy who carried United on his shoulders as a 20-year-old, the leading scorer in Van Gaal's safety-first nothingness, has the potential to terrorise defences across Europe.
While Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have failed to add trophies -- Klopp gets a chance to right that this Saturday, of course -- at Liverpool and Tottenham, each team has a defined, often thrilling, approach. They tear forward with ruthless abandon, scoring goals and thrilling their fans. Anyone who says they'd swap United's season with Liverpool's -- even before the outcome of Saturday's Champions League final -- really is stretching their pragmatism to breaking point. Second place is nothing. Losers are forgotten quickly, but those who go down fighting valiantly warrant a modicum of acclaim. United cannot be afforded that this season.
If you're not winning anything, like Spurs continue to do, at least take the scenic route to failure. Give the fans some enjoyment, even if it's futile in the end. For too long since Ferguson retired, and for too long since Mourinho took over, supporters have eventually wished the season away, grateful to have a break from the monotony.
Mourinho, the chief constrictor, faces a crucial summer ahead of his third, potentially era-defining season at United. The paradox is that he needs to loosen up, figuratively and literally, if he wants to keep his grip on a job that has so far proven a much tougher task than he might have imagined.
Alex Shaw is General Editor at ESPN FC. Follow on Twitter: @AlexShawESPN.