Lucas Moura has just skipped past the hapless Chris Smalling and slotted the ball past David De Gea to put Tottenham 3-0 up against Manchester United, in only the third game of the Premier League season.
Apart from actual goals – the stat that matters most – the numbers show United were the team on top in the game. More shots, more possession, more passes, more corners than Spurs overall; so how on earth did the scoreline end up a 3-0 reverse? It’s a flattering scoreline for Spurs, but that does nothing to change the narrative, the mood, or the target.
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Just as it’s been since pre-season – and in the second half of the last campaign – the headline maker was Jose Mourinho.
The press chose not to focus on Phil Jones for failing to pick up Harry Kane from a corner. Nor Romelu Lukaku for missing an open goal from an angle. Nope, the spotlight was squarely on Jose Mourinho. United’s slow start to the season is already being called a crisis, but is it really this bad, and is Mourinho really the root of all problems?
Ongoing tension with the press
If you read various news outlets’ reports, Jose Mourinho is; a dinosaur, past his best, negative, killing the game, the enemy of youth and just plain miserable. A far cry from his 2004 entrance into the English game with Chelsea, where the self-appointed “Special One” was lauded by an English press pack that hung on his every word. He was a walking soundbite, and fed the press many headlines for many years. Jose sold papers and created copy for the media.
In many ways he still does, and in many ways he still wants that attention from them. He always seems prepared with a phrase or quote that he knows will make the news. The difference these days however is that it’s generally pretty sullen, and not as happy-go-lucky as it used to be.
In the press conference after the Spurs defeat, the animosity towards the media spilled over. For the past two years Mourinho has been battered from all angles for playing pragmatically for the result, an approach which earned United a 2nd place finish.
Were United the 2nd best team in the Premier League last season? Probably not, but this is a results business. The fact that United finished 2nd with a poorer squad than their rivals shows that Jose got the most out of a disjointed team, a fact which should be lauded, right?
Against Spurs, United went against recent form and played on the front foot, but were punished for some poor defensive mistakes and wastefulness in front of goal. Did the press praise this brave attacking approach? Nope, still the same fierce criticism of Jose, despite the mistakes of his players.
It seems Mourinho can’t do anything right by the English press any more. It’s no wonder this proud man seems miserable.
Pochettino, Klopp and media hypocrisy
For United fans, the thing that irks is just how much Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino are lauded for their jobs at Liverpool and Tottenham respectively. Somehow, finishing a season trophyless is ok, as long as you’re playing attractive football it seems. Which is why Mourinho is quick to remind everyone how it’s United that have been winning trophies in recent seasons, and not Liverpool or Spurs. And that it’s he who has won the Premier League three times, while those two managers have not really come close.
Maybe it’s a personality thing. Does he need to run up and down the touchline maniacally and bear hug his players to win the adulation of the media? Would that mean losing numerous consecutive finals was acceptable all of a sudden? Or maybe it is all about the style of football. Should United adopt an attacking approach and throw caution to the wind?
Well Mourinho tried that against Spurs, and despite defeat there were many positives to take from the game. Yet the media were not overly impressed. In fact, they were pretty snide towards Mourinho, provoking his “respect” tirade that, once again, became the headline. Yes Mourinho is grumpy, yes he is peeved. But is it any wonder when the same standards of criticism are not applied equally?
Transfers, mistakes, and the backing of the board
Since taking over in May 2016, Jose Mourinho has been backed handsomely in the transfer market. At the time of writing he has spent around £350m on 11 new players at Manchester United, with mixed success.
Mourinho inherited a squad at United with a lot of money already spent on some mediocre players, or ones that fitted the style of the previous regimes. The likes of Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay were all promptly moved on as soon as it became clear they didn’t fit the system.
Lukaku, Matić, Bailly and Zlatan have all played a big part in building a strong core of a first 11, with Zlatan’s injury bringing a premature end to what was a fantastic debut season in England. Others have been quite slow to ignite. Paul Pogba is a fantastic player who’s been trusted with the captaincy recently, but has yet to find a system and formation that play to his strengths. It’s a similar story with Alexis Sanchez; some great stats in some games, but inconsistency in the final third for most. Victor Lindelöf has so far proved as much of a defensive liability as Smalling and Jones at times, while Henrik Mkhitaryan never found a rhythm at United and was promptly moved on.
The frustration from fans though, is that Mourinho knows where he’s made transfer mistakes, and this summer he really needed to rectify that. Every single one of Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have made mistakes in the transfer market, and have been trusted to correct them in the next window(s). The United board haven’t given Jose that luxury, and so we have a disjointed team with imperfect components, average back-ups and a fractured relationship between the board and the manager.
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Back him or sack him – which will it be?
And so United have started the season with an impasse situation behind the scenes between Ed Woodward and Jose Mourinho, who in pre-season claimed he still needed one or two players after the signings of Diogo Dalot and Fred. Those “one or two” players never came, even though it was clear that United were short of a quality centre back after the unconvincing season Lindelöf, Smalling and Jones had.
Mourinho earmarked Toby Alderweireld of Tottenham and Harry Maguire of Leicester, both of whom would be an upgrade on current options. Neither materialised, leaving Mourinho short of quality at the back and asking just why his chairman didn’t trust him. The result has been obvious on the pitch; the defensive errors against Spurs undermined what was actually a breakthrough performance for United – especially the first half – and a quality new signing at the back would’ve arguably won more points so far.
Jose Mourinho has certainly set himself up for some of the criticism he’s receiving. With the amount of effort he puts into pointing the spotlight on himself, he was always going to be turned on by the press if results went against him. But the level of nastiness directed at him this season has been borderline disrespectful.
If Jose is to build his team in the same way that Klopp, Guardiola and Pochettino are being allowed to, then the board need to let him rectify his transfer mistakes and strengthen their obvious weaknesses. Just as other managers have been allowed to.
Sure, Mourinho hasn’t been a perfect manager so far at United and has made many mistakes. But the failure of the board to either back or sack him over the summer has made this the most disjointed start to a season in recent years.