[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he recent events surrounding Manchester United – both on and off the pitch – have created an embarrassing air around the club. Gary Neville’s scathing, yet heartfelt, attack on the state of the club two weeks ago resonated with many supporters. Yet, in focusing his displeasure on Ed Woodward alone, Neville failed to address two other issues: United’s ownership and the manager’s failing performances.
While the Chief Executive and those above must take much of the blame for the failures of the past five years, Mourinho is as key contributor to United’s crisis. The drama surrounding the recent fixture with Newcastle United seemed to further draw the battle lines between the manager and his Board, with some fans bent on opposing the latter by showing loyalty to the former.
It is a no-win scenario, yet, when it comes to the state of the club, there is plenty of blame to share around. Increasingly, United fans are angry at the whole situation, recognising the need for holistic change.
The manager’s job is usually the first step in that process. After all, the Board cannot be sacked – at least not while it is dominated by Glazer children – and a playing squad requires time for evolution.
Mourinho deserves the terrace support that Old Trafford has offered every United manager, even those who struggle, but fans risk falling blindly into a trap, perhaps out of some misguided faith that Mourinho is indeed some kind of victim. It’s the narrative the Portuguese wants – his calculated, self-indulgent comments after the game attest to that.
The broader question is whether this is Mourinho’s march towards an exit, and whether United should push before the manager jumps?
Boardroom politics should not detract from the poor state of United’s performances this season, that half against Newcastle excepted. Mourinho is largely at fault for results. Recent performances against West Ham United and Valencia, for example, should have proven a nadir for the manager’s tenure, while the win over Newcastle barely papered over the cracks in his regime. That fightback and international break granted Mourinho a stay of execution. If he cannot muster an upturn in results then it should not be held for much longer.
Pressure could mount though, with a fixture list that includes games against Chelsea, Manchester City and Juventus. If United play in the same fashion that has been common of late then the misery of Mourinho’s reign should come to a swift end.
There are few indicators that Mourinho will turn it around. History says that when the rot sets in, it remains. At Real Madrid and Chelsea he lost the confidence of his squads. On the pitch his approach now feels outdated, a man wedded to his former glories, but totally unable to adapt.
Of course, United’s players and Board must take responsibility too. It leaves a sour taste in the mouth to lay all ills on the manager, yet change may well need to begin with Mourinho.
[blockquote who=”José Mourinho” cite=””]I am 55 years old. It is the first time I see man-hunting. I can cope with it. I can live with it. Some of the boys, in spite of them not being the man that is hunted, they are not coping with it. There is too much wickedness in something that should be beautiful. I cope with it, with some sadness.[/blockquote]
West Ham and Valencia showcased a manager void of ideas. The switch to a back-three in London looked like a roll of the dice, rather than a genuine plan. It is an observation confirmed by the change of shape for the following games against Valencia and Newcastle.
If the inclusion of Scott McTominay at the back in London was bemusing, then the youngsters’ continued presence is an insult to more established players. Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof have suffered poor form this season, but McTominay’s selection has reeked of a deliberate point made to the Board.
West Ham and Newcastle became the latest teams to showcase the brittle nature of United’s defence. The resolute rear guard of Mourinho’s first two campaigns has now evaporated. In fact, Marko Arnoutavic’s goal marked the 12th Mourinho’s side has conceded in the league this season. It was 17 December before that total was reached last year.
Beyond the defence, United has continued to look incoherent in attack, relying on moments of individual brilliance rather than a defined philosophy. The second half rally against Newcastle was born out of desperation, but at least the side attacked with fluidity and purpose. Yet, it is wishful thinking to believe that Newcastle will be a catalyst for change. We’ve seen this film before, against Crystal Palace and City last season. The irony that goals came from players Mourinho has often stifled should be lost on nobody.
Mourinho talks of respect for his previous achievements, but he looks far from replicating those earlier feats. Meanwhile, United’s rivals seem far more assured. Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino’s methods are now well embedded, while Mauricio Sarri and Unai Emery are implementing attractive styles at Chelsea and Arsenal.
Perhaps the most damming signal of this shift came as Liverpool recently took on City. The match between United’s two fiercest rivals has now become the Premier League’s hottest fixture. When Guardiola arrived at City, Mourinho was expected to be his greatest challenger. The Portuguese is eclipsed by Klopp.
Even Mourinho’s man management caché has taken a nose dive. For example, the decision drop Alexis Sanchez for United’s trip to West Ham was justified, but forcing the player to travel to London and watch from the stands smacked of cheap points scored, alienating another player devoid of form and confidence. The Chilean’s return against Valencia only underscored Mourinho’s scattergun approach to assembling his team.
Underperforming players are far from blameless and Mourinho cannot be held accountable for every individual errors. Yet, the notion that the manager is not responsible is naive. Mourinho’s persistent public conflict with players is beginning to have an effect on the squad’s confidence. Demotivation is now widespread. While the manager has never been afraid to employ conflict as a tool, it is a strategy that – along with his tactics – now seems outdated. Whether veiled or direct, airing United’s dirty laundry in public has added to the appearance of a circus at Old Trafford.
Some have come out of the other side. Luke Shaw has been rewarded with a new five-year contract, but the left-back felt the brunt of Mourinho’s ire for two full years. As Shaw broke into the team this season, the consistent run of games has brought improved performances.
Yet, the manager’s loyalties are as fickle as ever and his trust in players rarely stretches beyond one poor performance. Lindelof, Sanchez, Bailly, Andreas Pereira, Jess Lingard, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba have all been subject to omissions following an off week. Bailly, substituted after half an hour against Newcastle, has not recovered from from being inexplicably left out of the squad last spring.
Mourinho demands consistency, but the manager is far from consistent in his squad management. There are those that remain in the manager’s favour, such as McTominay, but it often feels political. Mourinho’s insistence on awarding the Scot Manager’s Player of the Season last was a calculated message towards Pogba
Mourinho’s demeanour is beginning to irritate many. The Portuguese has always been slave to his ego, but when results fail to match the bravado, the act wears thin. United supporters crave a return to dominance enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson. Mourinho was supposed to hold the same winning mentality. Indeed, the regime began with bold claims and two trophies. After years of meek performances under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, Mourinho appeared to be a better fit for United. Yet, when things begin to go wrong, Mourinho turns inwards and the atmosphere turns sour quickly.
The manager has entered the same toxic mode that marked the end of his time in Madrid and west London: Trumpian distance from poor results, a narcissistic twisting of the narrative after victory, soundbites that from the summer onwards have become increasingly negative and self-indulgent.
Mourinho is stung over what he feels is a lack of credit for last season’s second-place finish, yet he has now presided over United’s joint worst start to a Premier League season. That is not the result of a media agenda against the manager.
There is, of course, a higher scrutiny on Mourinho. United’s history in and place in world football ensures that. The level of performance this season was always likely to bring criticism and Mourinho has struggled to deal with it.
Given the wider issues at the club, the slump in form requires a manager that breeds unity, not division. It is a squad that needs motivation and inspiration through the kind of leadership Mourinho is now unable to provide.
Mourinho deserves some sympathy, of course. The club’s owners have leached more than £1 billion out of the club in interest payments, fees and dividends since 2005. There’s an outdated football structure too, and Woodward is short of deal-making skills required in the transfer market. There are players that the club should sell and seemingly cannot.
None of those issues are going to be resolved quickly. The more immediate concern is that by mid-October Mourinho is leading United’s season beyond the point of no return. There is still time to turn results around, even if Mourinho is unlikely to change United’s playing style for the better. The upcoming run of fixtures is central to United’s season.
If United posts a series of poor results in the next month, the plug will surely be pulled. Patchy results will only deepen the toxic atmosphere that now lingers darkly over Old Trafford. If Mourinho’s team can muster a few wins, with a more positive approach, then the manager will have cause to bring forward that famous ego.
The next month may well finally prove whether the Special One is still special.