Three months, 14 matches and a quarter of the way into a new season. Isn’t it time that new manager Jose Mourinho found an identity for his Manchester United’s side, if not the songsheet for a successful future. It’s a question on the lips of many supporters after the Reds’ decidedly inconsistent start to the campaign.
Four defeats in all competitions points to a squad that is still some distance from the outfit Mourinho’s appointment promised. United could be headed in the right direction, but the new manager must find the right note before pressure builds.
Indeed, United’s performances in the games that really matter have been far from satisfactory. Mourinho’s team was heavily defeated at Chelsea, struggled to a scoreless draw at Anfield and lost at home to Manchester City. There have been moments of hope: healthy victory over Fenerbahçe and Leicester City, but in truth it is an inconsistent story.
These rare moments of hope have come amid a narrative of constant flux. Mourinho is seemingly unaware of his best team, nor the right combinations in key defensive, midfield and attacking spheres. Mourinho’s tinkering with United’s with personal and positions has reached levels at which Louis van Gaal might be proud.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Four defeats in all competitions points to a squad that is still some distance from the outfit Mourinho’s appointment promised. United could be headed in the right direction, but the new manager must find the right note before pressure builds.[/blockquote]
United’s League Cup win over City this week came with yet another midfield combination: Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick. One trio of many this season. Nor has Mourinho settled on either winger, a prefered left-back, or the best combination in central defence. Or, to put that another way, only David de Gea, Antonio Valencia, and Zlatan Ibrahimović can be assured of both of a place in Mourinho’s team and a consistent role. Even the latter looks so jaded that a period of rest is in the offing.
Elsewhere, Daley Blind and Luke Shaw have been in and out of the team, while Chris Smalling was only selected after starting the season on the bench. Midfielders Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Ashley Young may, or may not, play from week-to-week. Marcus Rashford is now in the team, but only in wide areas, and the Englishman did not start the season. Antony Martial, one of last season’s best players, is now a rare starter.
Such is the inconsistency of selection that Bastian Schweinsteiger may even be comforted by the certainly that he will not play come what may. Henryk Mkhitaryan and Memphis Depay are fast approaching the same status. Phil Jones might be ignored too, but for his chronic addiction to physical rehabilitation.
It is a squad replete with fringe players and few guaranteed starters – and while competition for places is a modern necessity there is more than a little sense that United’s muddled performances are a symptom.
As for the system, Mourinho unveiled another new formation against City in midweek: a 4-1-2-2-1. One for football’s telephone number-quoting hipster community. The midfield trio Carrick was deployed at the base, with Herrera and Pogba a little ahead. Juan Mata on the right, was joined by Rashford on the left – hardly the best position for either. It was another combination of many already this season.
Then there is United’s mentality, which has veered wildly from an ultra-defensive outlook at Anfield, with the Reds effectively deploying six at the back during the second half, to the free-flowing attacking liberalism of victory over Leicester. Mourinho, the ultimate pragmatist, has become a caricature of himself. United’s identity is incoherent as a result.
In each area – personnel, tactics and mentality – Mourinho is far from displaying certainty. It is unlike the former Chelsea, Real Madrid and Internazionale manager; a sense of self-doubt that comes with one of the 54-year-old’s greatest challenges. Mourinho’s rejoinder is a call for time, much like David Moyes and Van Gaal before him.
“In three months it is not so easy to change the most difficult thing which are personalities,” Mourinho said this week. “The style of play, even with mistakes, you can change here and there but at the psychological level it takes more time especially if you go against the nature of some of the personalities.
“When you don’t have a very experienced squad where everybody knows how to win, what is needed to win, that consistency level you must have to cope with the routine of victories, because that is difficult to cope with although it is easier than the routine of defeat, that’s the most difficult time of the process.
“We need time. Some clubs get time but with others you demand immediate success of the clubs and the managers. That’s Manchester United and José Mourinho. No problem.”
Patience has not always been on the club’s agenda since Ferguson’s retirement. Not that there is any suggestion the new manager’s position is under threat. Simply that the opening weeks of the season leave an obvious question: how can Mourinho find an identity for his team amid the flux of evolving personnel and formations? Most of it, of the Portuguese’s own making.
Mourinho needs to find the clarity of thought that led to Wayne Rooney’s demotion last month. It took the new manager just seven games to make the decision that Moyes and Van Gaal could or would not. Big call, big decision.
Similar monumental change may yet be provoked by United’s catastrophic loss at Stamford Bridge, even if the manager put much of the defeat down to individual errors. The roles of the aforementioned Smalling, Blind, and Fellaini in that defeat will not easily be forgotten. This is not Mourinho’s first rodeo; he is willing to railroad players out of the team.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Patience has not always been on the club’s agenda since Ferguson’s retirement. Not that there is any suggestion the new manager’s position is under threat.[/blockquote]
One can presume that Schweinsteiger and Depay will be offered an opportunity to pursue their careers elsewhere in the January transfer window. Mkhitaryan may not be far behind.
United’s manager also faces a big call over Ibrahimović, a supreme talent who is beginning to look like a player who has just entered his 36th year. The Swede has scored just once in nine games, with Rashford or Martial offering far more dynamic options up front. One or both could hardly score fewer goals.
Yet, solving the squad’s weaknesses is only part of Mourinho’s to do list as the new year approaches. The Portuguese must also find room for his most productive players, and in their best positions.
Herrera and Mata have thrived when picked, but the pair has started just eight and nine of United’s 14 games this season. The former is a revelation in a more withdrawn role – and demonstrated ample levels of energy and leadership against City, perhaps a demonstration of his potential to become Rooney’s successor as club captain.
There can be no doubt that Mata is at his sumptuous best when selected in a central, creative role, although he enjoyed the link-up with Herrera on the right of United’s midfield against City. Either way, if now is not the time for Mourinho to trust the Spaniard in the club’s biggest games, when is? It is a decision that goes together with removing United’s shackles when facing the club’s biggest competitors. The defensive mindset has not served the team well.
Then there is the biggest question of all: how to get the best out of Pogba by building a team around the Frenchman’s needs. In Turin Pogba enjoyed a role on the left side of a midfield three, with license to drive forward at every opportunity. It suggests a formation to which Mourinho is seemingly reluctant to commit.
If that is the answer, then Mourinho may well dip into the transfer market for a defensive midfielder this summer, given Carrick’s age and the distinct lack of trust placed in Schneiderlin. First, however, United’s manager is almost duty bound to tie up a deal for another central defender, with Eric Bailly likely to be at the Africa Cup of Nations for much of January, and Smalling’s form inconsistent. Bailly’s knee injury against Chelsea is ill luck with horribly impeccable timing. The music of chance.
Transfers are certainly not the answer to United’s problems. The club has spent plenty of money since Ferguson’s retirement in the failure pursuit of former glories. Mourinho believes he is on the right track.
“I never went to a winning club with recent success where you can just introduce a bit of your salt and pepper and the road to success was there,” he claimed.
“I always had difficult moments. Then I left Porto as European champions, I left Inter as European champions, I left Chelsea with two titles in three years and I left Real Madrid with a title. Then I got this club in a hard situation but that’s a great job.”.
First, Mourinho needs to get his house in order – the conductor whose orchestra is not yet playing in time.