This has been a difficult week for Manchester and Jose Mourinho. Two home draws mean that the team have now been held 9 times in 16 games at Old Trafford, scoring only 21 goals in the process. The four dropped points all but confirmed that qualification for the Champions League football will have to be achieved through the Europa League, a possibility, but as with any cup competition a single off-day can lead to elimination. Of more concern were the performances in those two matches, full of endeavour and effort but chaotic and devoid of final-third quality and penalty-box predatory, as articulated excellently in this blog by United fan Scott Tridge. Confidence is now so low at home that considered, high-quality build up play has been all but discarded in favour of hopeful crossing and long punts forward to a big man. Poor finishing was once again a ‘thing’, but clear goalscoring chances are now less frequent than than previous home encounters. The team looks a little lost and mentally frail. These are concerning times.
When Jose Mourinho was appointed as United coach some commentators warned us that he may not be what he once was and that old failings may return. In the early stages of a new manager’s tenure the fans don’t want to hear about the danger inherent in the appointment. They are hoping for a bright new future, filled with goals and trophies. Mourinho has delivered that in spades at former clubs and so there was (and perhaps still is) reason to believe that he can reproduce that in Manchester. But the warnings were clear: He cannot develop young talents and if things are not going well he will turn on his players, or some of them at least, with toxic consequences. What’s more, it has been suggested that his brand of hands-off attacking was out-dated and that the more successful coaches employ greater micro-management.
It is safe to now suggest that United’s season has not gone to plan. Neither the club, the coach nor the fans will have anticipated that the team would enter April anchored in sixth place in the Premier League, with a lower goal tally than that achieved by Louis Van Gaal’s team in the Dutchman’s first season at the club and not far ahead of his wretched second campaign. The side is unquestionably more resilient and harder to beat, as demonstrated by a twenty match unbeaten run the League, but performances tell a different story. After an extremely promising period before and after the New Year, United have settled back into mediocrity. Chances are still being missed with disturbing regularity, but the fluidity and relentless attacking often achieved in that period has started to wane, the team’s self-belief and on-pitch structure with it. Home games have now become a 90 minute act of desperation as a moderately successful season starts to slip away. It can still be rescued by winning the Europa League, but having to rely on a relative lottery is unnerving and unexpected at this stage of the campaign.
There are obviously mitigating factors. Mourinho inherited a raft of inadequate players with little mental fortitude, and his recruitment has undoubtedly been good. He cannot finish chances created or prevent poor defenders making unnecessary mistakes. But it is his job to build confidence, guide players through their responsibilities and correct faults. Instead of looking for another route, updating his tactics and game-preparation to counter more modern setups and strategies, he is stuck in the old routine, a routine which clearly is not working as it should. One of Fergie’s greatest strengths was his willingness to evolve, to embrace new ideas, appoint new staff to challenge him and move with the times. For Mourinho there has been no Carlos Queiroz or Brian Kidd. It is forever he and Rui Faria.
Of particular concern is the way that in the face of adversity he resorts to attacking his players, as he did in Madrid and so fatefully in his second spell at Chelsea. His first ‘victim’ was Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the wonderfully gifted former Dortmund player, who has excelled in spells but for whom Mourinho appears to have little patience. More worrying (and perhaps predictably) none of the club’s bright young things have prospered under the Portuguese. His approach to these players has been erratic. Anthony Martial has been a regular target for overt criticism and has joined Mkhitaryan on an incredibly short leash, dropped after a single below-par contribution. At the other end of the spectrum is Marcus Rashford, who has endured a season of struggle, mostly on the left wing, where he has rarely performed well as a starter but is picked regardless.
Mourinho appears to be of the opinion that following instructions to the letter and working hard trumps talent and performance. Some players are picked relentlessly, regardless of form, whilst others are ‘trusted’ despite having delivered precious little to be rewarded for. Luke Shaw is the current target of choice, much to his distress given the statement he released on Wednesday, highlighting his dedication to the club and willingness to work hard to lengthen his stay at Old Trafford. He should perhaps shoulder some responsibility for his lack of progression (four managers have now questioned his conditioning), but it appears that constant public criticism, at times almost cruel, is not helping matters. The cold hard truth is that none of the club’s young players have performed at anything like their previous levels this season. In the case of Timothy Fosu-Mensah he has all but disappeared. This can change, but currently the prophecies about Mourinho’s inability to develop young players is proving to be correct. He appears to be demanding immediate maturity from rough diamonds who need time and nurturing to reach that point. As the Independent’s Miguel Delaney opined today on Twitter, if you were Kylian Mbappe why choose United or Mourinho?
Despite taking over an unbalanced and average squad, Mourinho spent circa £150m on four top level players. He has creditably phased out Wayne Rooney and purged some inadequate squad members, but the level of development from Louis Van Gaal’s second season has not been adequate. Whilst there has clearly been more attacking intent, the very least the fans could have expected, results and goal tallies have not improved. The League Cup was a pleasant boon for players and fans, but the biggest target was always re-entry into the Champions League. Without it recruitment becomes harder and another slog in the Europa League lies ahead, with the knock on effect on Premier League form that we have witnessed this season.
Mourinho’s impact on the players he inherited has been mixed. More experienced heads like Antonio Valencia, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Marcos Rojo have undoubtedly benefitted from his tutelage, but the bulk of the squad have not improved. The team’s reliance on Zlatan and Paul Pogba has been marked, to the detriment of the latter’s form, and the manager is beholden to the Swede for scoring the goals that others have failed to do. This reliance has knock in effects on performance. Ibrahimovic often drops deep to gain possession and United regularly find themselves in good positions but with no target in the box to aim for. A predatory goalscorer is sorely missed. Mark Ogden wrote on ESPN this week that the Swede is considering an exit for LA, disappointed at the lack of competitiveness of those around him, but that this provides United with an opportunity to properly rebuild their misfiring forward line. With the statuesque Zlatan up front the temptation to launch long balls upfield is often overpowering, as we saw on Tuesday evening. Mourinho’s use of direct passing as a Plan B and love of Marouane Fellaini is something we roundly criticised David Moyes for and yet here we are watching the very same approach from one of the world’s most successful managers. In the minds of many fans however, Mourinho remains flame proof, as modern cult-manager’s so often are.
This last week could be a turning point, however, or perhaps it will be the beginning of a long, painful path which will end as the tenure’s of Mourinho’s recent predecessors did. As much as we want to ignore the warning signs, some of the prophecies made and warnings given about the Portuguese’s outdated approach and inability to manage young players are coming to pass. It is still too early to draw conclusions about the path that this manager and his team will now take longer term. Perhaps the Europa League will be won and Champions League will be secured, making this a satisfactory first season, creditably ending with two trophies in the bag. Or maybe United will fall short. It will be interesting to see how Mourinho reacts should that be the case. Regardless, his rebuilding will continue in the summer and there is no doubt that the manager is a fine identifier of talent. If Ed Woodward can deliver his targets the squad will be stronger in August. But there can be no excuses next season if a title challenge is not delivered. If that transpires much of the above will be forgiven, but those who warned us that Jose could well implode as he did at Chelsea should not be readily dismissed. Some of last summer’s prophecies are coming to pass and we have to hope that Mourinho can adapt his approach and overcome United’s current difficulties. The sky may be the limit, but the club’s ultimate destination may again be the gutter.