As the dust settles on United’s dramatic comeback against Newcastle, there is an inclination to applaud the manager and the players for turning around a situation that, at half-time, looked beyond them.
In the first half, the reds were devoid of confidence, carved open by Newcastle at will, and barely able to find a man with simple plays. Confidence in themselves, as well as the players around them, was at rock bottom. David De Gea, as he so often does, kept the scoreline respectable. Meaning that at the break, the game wasn’t altogether lost. 45 minutes and three goals later, Jose was commiserating Rafa Benitez at the final whistle.
The players that entered Old Trafford’s pitch for that second half were unrecognisable from those that had departed it some 15 minutes previously. Confidence, perseverance, heart – they gave the United faithful hope with Mata’s freekick, delight at Martial’s neat finish and ecstasy in the form of Sanchez’s flicked header. Heading into the international break, at any other club, the mood would be buoyant.
The problem is that this isn’t any other club; the 3-2 victory came against Newcastle United, a team that had up until kick off had struggled for goals, while fighting their own internal power battles. For Mourinho’s side, a club with ambitions of titles both at home and on the continent, the result barely papers over the cracks.
So what is going wrong? On the one hand, you have one of the most decorated managers of the current era, and on the other, you have essentially the world’s richest club, steeped in tradition and success. But what should be a marriage made in heaven is petering between a final ultimatum and divorce. How have United found themselves in such turmoil during the post-Ferguson years?
The clubs hierarchy has hardly covered themselves in glory. United owners, the Glazer family, have remained a silent force since they took full control of the club in 2005. Being a global powerhouse, United are a guaranteed source of income, with attraction and pull across the world. Sponsorship deals, pre-and post-season tours and the broadcasting of Premier League action across the globe mean that regardless of what happens on the pitch, they are financially satisfied off it. In Ed Woodward the club clearly have an astute and incredibly successful businessman at the helm. The issue seems to be that for what he possesses in business acumen he lacks in footballing know-how.
The Moyes era was short-lived and unfortunate. Whatever your take or views on David Moyes, he was horribly out of his depth through no fault of his own. Unattainable transfers were pursued as Woodward sought to lay down a marker of his own at the club; meaning that after flirtatious glances were cast at Cesc Fabregas and Gareth Bale, Moyes found himself starting the season with Fellaini. The relative success he had at Everton meant that he was entitled to try, but once European football was out of sight, he was replaced by Louis Van Gaal.
Fresh from a World Cup semi-final, here was a man with a CV that justified such a high profile appointment – Barcelona, Bayern and Ajax and a host of honours. Numerous transfers followed; with a mix of youth prospects such as Memphis Depay, Antony Martial and Luke Shaw, coupled with established global stars like Angel Di Maria. Fast forward two years and the Dutchman was picking up his p45, less than 24 hours after lifting the FA Cup. Despite the silverware, in truth, United were in danger of straying even further away from their philosophy by playing a brand of risk-adverse football. The likes of which were only previously employed by certain away teams at Old Trafford.
Then came Jose.
For most, the appointment was seen as a positive – here was a man with the stature and character to be the one to drag the Reds back into title contention. His presence at the helm almost guaranteed trophies. The opposition to his appointment pointed the finger at the manner of his most recent exit from Stamford Bridge, leaving them languishing just outside the relegation places. Couple this with a tendency to alienate himself from players, all while playing a more pragmatic and withdrawn style of football. The jury was out.
Brought in with a sizeable warchest to challenge other newly appointed managers, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, the first season was arguably a success. The Europa League and League Cup were added to the trophy cabinet, masking a sixth-place league finish. On the pitch, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were acquired. Later complemented by Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof, for the start of the second season.
Back in the Champions League and armed with a squad bearing Mourinho’s hallmarks – height and physical strength – things were finally looking up. The runners-up spot that followed would ordinarily have been seen as a sign of significant improvement had they not finished 19 points behind winners and ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City. If the points gap was big, then the contrast in style was vast. United resorted to bullying teams and, in times of desperation, long ball tactics, a stark contrast to City’s free-flowing and fluid style of play.
While City fans drooled, pundits speculated whether we’d see a title challenge again. For Jose, the alarm bells were ringing. Pep’s brand of football was winning him plaudits left, right and centre and he was garnering the adulation of the media, not seen since Mourinho left his first spell in charge of Chelsea. Pep hugged and congratulated his players after every game, and at times even sought out opposition players for similar treatment.
Jose, for his part, was sullen and argumentative in press conferences – “the happy one” appeared to be the ‘disenchanted one’ – while player relations were starting to nosedive. His demeanour soured further amidst allegations of bullying against Luke Shaw, while rumours of a bust-up with Pogba saw the Frenchman benched for the crucial Championship League tie against Sevilla – an awkward moment for the clubs record signing to take.
His robust love approach to man management that saw him through at Chelsea wasn’t working. Strong personalities akin to John Terry’s, Frank Lampard’s and Didier Drogba’s of this world are few and far between these days. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was a prime example. A confidence player, he would suffer from bouts of self-doubt on the pitch and required an arm-around-the-shoulder approach to flourish. Klopp gave him that at Dortmund and he thrived. Mourinho gave him the cold shoulder approach, and he was gone after just 18 months.
By the end of the summer, Pogba was rumoured to want out, he had alienated Martial for the strikers attendance at the birth of his child, while the collective noses of Rojo, Smalling, Jones, Bailly and Lindelof were put out of joint with his insistence that his current centre-backs weren’t up to scratch. Two months later and he is barely on speaking terms with Antonio Valencia, the United captain, while further criticism of Sanchez, Bailly, Rashford and Jones has been aired directly to the media. After the League Cup defeat on penalties to Derby, he singled out Jones and Bailly stating ‘once we were down to these two, I knew we were in trouble’. This was particularly harsh on Bailly as he didn’t even get the chance to take a spot kick, while a similar perspective could have been taken with Derby defenders Craig Forsyth and Richard Keogh, as they were hardly known to be penalty specialists before stepping up.
In lean times, you need the support of your players and staff. With Mourinho’s trusted lieutenant Rui Faria having left over the summer and having ostracised a number of his playing staff, he is starting to cut a lonely figure. Fans have been brought up time and time again in discussions with the media. Few will forget his prolonged applause in front of the home fans after the defeat to Spurs, and he repeatedly thanks and praises the support his receives from fans. But results alone are not enough these days – fans hark back to the free-flowing football of the Ferguson era, and while supporters are realistic, an attack-minded approach to home games, particularly against lower table opposition surely isn’t too much to ask.
But it’s not just player fallouts that have dominated the column inches. Many clubs successfully employ a director of football to widen the pool of voices feeding into the decision making processes – but not so at Old Trafford. United’s squad was described as heavily imbalanced by Mourinho upon his arrival and bore the remnants of four different managerial regimes. A director of football helps align the clubs transfer activities, and so helps avoid the player merry-go-rounds that can occur with changes in manager.
All this means that Mourinho feeds directly into Ed Woodward, who as a result, becomes another target for his media snipings. Annoyed at a perceived lack of support in the transfer market, Jose’s unsubtle digs ultimately came to nothing as Woodward refused to sanction moves for Jose’s preferred central defensive target, Jerome Boateng. The issue here being the CEO’s preference for younger talent with a sell-on value, whereas Jose demands ready-made first-team personnel. Mourinho could be afforded some sympathy, as he wasn’t being backed, but having already previously invested in two centre-backs, Woodward could be forgiven for feeling Jose had had his chance.
Already tense relationship’s frayed further with the opposing stances regarding Antony Martial. Mourinho was ready to cut loose the player, while Woodward was not prepared to sanction the sale, conversely leading to rumours looking at rewarding the Frenchman with a new contract. Hardly a show of support, despite the manager recently having been awarded a contract extension himself.
Had Jose’s media utterances finally hit a nerve with the hierarchy? When no new signings materialise, Mourinho warned fans to expect a difficult season. So far, his prediction has been on the money.
A lacklustre and disjointed defeat at Brighton was followed up by the tactical mess against Spurs. Ander Herrera was deployed as a centre back, ahead of Bailly, in a back three that looked clueless in how they should be lining up.
Three away wins, against Burnley, Watford and Young Boys served to mask the issues. Burnley appeared burnt from their unsuccessful Europa League campaign, while United ended up clinging on against the Hornets. Young Boys could and should have taken the lead before Pogba inspired an ultimately comfortable win. But these were games United are expected to win, if they have any aspirations of silverware.
The clubs League Cup campaign was over before it had already begun against Derby, while another disaster followed at the Olympic stadium. West Ham tore through another make-shift back three, this time featuring Scott McTominay, preferred ahead of another actual centre back Lindelof. Against Newcastle, McTominay again dropped into defence as Bailly was substituted in the 19th minute – a penny for his thoughts right now. The Red Devil’s even lined up with Pogba and Matic in a back three as the second half got underway. While it eventually worked for United against Newcastle, if the fans were baffled with the tactical selections, then pundits were lost for words.
So where do United go from here?
The consensus is unsurprisingly divided. One half wants to stick with the manager, laying the finger of blame squarely at the door of Woodward and the underperforming players. Urged on by Gary Neville, who called media reports that Mourinho was going to be sacked after the Newcastle game a disgrace. The other half, want to cut their losses before things get even worse.
While Neville’s response is commendable, United prided themselves on doing things differently by not sacking their managers at the first sign of dissent. The issue here is just how deep are the fissures within the club, and how much damage has already been done to both the chances of success and their reputation as a whole.
Results wise, this has been United’s worst start to a season for 29 years – worrying given the calibre of opposition they are yet to face. Out of the League Cup, Seven points off the top of the league after just eight games, this next month appears to be make or break for United’s season, and probably for Jose’s United future. A Champions League doubleheader against group favourites Juventus is mixed in with league games against Chelsea, Everton, Bournemouth and Manchester City, Mourinho can ill-afford to lose any ground on the pace-setters domestically or in Europe.
For the time being, past experiences do play into Jose’s favour when it comes to managerial sackings. Moyes was removed only once it was mathematically confirmed United were out of European contention, while Van Gaal was also given an extended stay of execution. It would appear that Woodward and the Glazers don’t make hasty decisions. After receiving the backing of the board in response to the weekends ‘leak’, and the comeback against Newcastle, Jose will now almost certainly last the international break. But it does give the board time to think.
The manager sets the tempo, chooses the tactics and motivates and inspires the team, so the worry is that the chaotic performances, bizarre selections and the lack of unity in the squad are indicative of the manager. Was the 3-2 win a sign of the players pulling together in support, or merely a group of superior individuals stepping up and playing as they should against a team that themselves were shocked to find themselves 2-0 up?
Squad harmony is still at an all-time low in spite of the result. The Pogba debate will rumble on, picking up heat as we get closer to January, while Eric Bailly is going to take some time to recover from the ignominy of being substituted after just 19minutes. Luke Shaw has proved you can work through the criticism and come out the other side, deserves of the credit he’s received, but it’s unlikely this will apply to all involved. Sir Alex always stated that nobody was bigger than the club, a statement echoed recently by Mourinho himself.
Ordinarily, this would and should be the case, as the club shouldn’t let a players power overshadow the manager and dictate his exit. But what do you do when it’s a player majority, rather than one individual? Time and time again we see managerial changes at the lower ends of the table, with chairman sensing the incumbent manager is no longer capable of motivating a team to victory and so opts to change personnel, hoping for a new manager bounce. If the perceived discontent is as it appears, what do the United hierarchy do? Support Jose and look to offload those he no longer trusts, bringing in replacements at a considerable cost, or remove a single member of staff – the manager.
The problem is that it isn’t just one player, it’s multiple, either through direct criticism or dressing room factions standing up for teammates. Rumours of players rejecting a transfer to United based on Mourinho and his style of play will hurt the club – players should be signing because of, not in spite of the manager. Has Jose indirectly talked himself out of the Old Trafford hot seat? Would Pogba have been so open and honest in his media responses if he didn’t view Mourinho’s position as being under threat, and have the backing of a number of players?
Looking from the outside, unless there is a drastic upturn in attitude and performance in the next six games, it looks like the Newcastle result may just delaying the inevitable. The deep rifts in the squad appear unlikely to heal at present, and Mourinho seems either incapable or unwilling to change his tact with both his style of man management and his tactical approach. The key to Sir Alex Ferguson’s longevity at the top was his ability to adapt, change and re-invent. As Klopp, Guardiola and Pochettino drive forward with modern managerial approaches, attacking and high pressing football that get fans on seats, Mourinho’s substance over style, while at times effective, does seem stuck in the past.
For the moment, it looks like it will take a monumental turnaround – possibly Jose’s most significant achievement in football – to get his squad to buy back into his methods and have them competing at the top. Failure to impress in the upcoming fixtures and it will surely mean the writings on the wall for Jose.