The public spat between José Mourinho and record buy, Paul Pogba has become the embodiment of the early-season crisis at Manchester United. The footage, which is open to interpretation, but is perceived to show an ice-cold exchange during training, is the latest instalment of a back and forth feud between manager and star player as flared tempers and scornful remarks have become a feature of interviews from both parties.
The incredible win over Newcastle United last week may have papered over the cracks somewhat as United’s indifferent form, including two defeats in the first three games of the season, has seen many pundits, journalists and ex-players call for Mourinho to be sacked. It can be convincingly argued that Mourinho has brought a lot of this on himself with repeated criticism of his players and the snowball effect that has on the atmosphere around the club, his use of a bland and semi-functional playing style and bickering with the media. However, it isn’t completely his fault and here is the case for the defence.
Set up to fail? Lack of support from the United hierarchy
This is Mourinho’s third season at United, he took over in 2016 and inherited a real mishmash of struggling stars (Wayne Rooney, Marouane Fellaini and Memphis Depay) and big-name players with limited enthusiasm (Bastian Schweinsteiger, Victor Valdés and Morgan Schneiderlin). United’s 2016/17 season saw them lose just five league games and go unbeaten in the Premier League between the end of October and the beginning of May. Mourinho delivered the League Cup, European qualification and the UEFA Europa League trophy, which gave them automatic entry to the UEFA Champions League group stages. Furthermore, he bolstered the midfield with the signings of Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and added some guile to the defence with Eric Bailly joining the Red Devils from Villareal. After the disasters his Old Trafford predecessors, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, delivered, Mourinho guided United to a fine season and steadied the ship for the first time post-Ferguson.
The United board cannot be accused of failing to back Mourinho in his first two seasons. In 2017 mega-money signings, Nemanja Matić, Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimović (at least in wages and signing-on fees) definitely added some much-needed quality to the ranks and pushed them into the bracket of one of the best squads in the Premier League. Swedish defender, Victor Lindelof had a fine season in 2016 for Portuguese side Benfica and was predicted to have a blossoming future at United, he arrived for just over £30m. Alexis Sánchez joined in January from Arsenal to further boost their attacking options. The big-name signings thrust United up to a second place league finish, which included at least one win over each of their title rivals and two wins over Arsenal. 2017/18 also included an appearance in the round-of-16 in the Champions League after Mourinho led United to the top of a tricky group stage, winning five games. He also gave the fans an FA Cup final appearance.
On the back of two very encouraging seasons, Mourinho could reasonably have expected the board to back him money-wise once again. United were certainly in need of new central defenders and a striker. However, the only notable signing was that of midfielder, Fred, from Shakhtar Donetsk. Despite repeated warnings from Mourinho via the media, he didn’t make the signings he wanted to and potential new signings, Alex Sandro, Harry Maguire and Ivan Perišić all stayed with their respective clubs. The lack of serious investment over the summer has genuinely hampered United’s progress so far this season and the board has to take the brunt of the blame for this. Currently, United are struggling defensively with the leftovers of previous managers and the struggling, Lindelof. The Swedish international apart, Mourinho has spent wisely at United; the Ibrahimović and Sánchez signings didn’t command a transfer fee. While Matić, Pogba and Lukaku have more or less settled and played well thus far. The United owners and board of directors may not agree with the style of United’s play or maybe Mourinho’s acerbic nature isn’t how they want to project the United brand to the rest of the world, either way, the lack of ambition shown by the United hierarchy is very concerning.
United’s co-chairmen Joel and Avram Glazer have never been the most popular after their 2005 takeover. Their refinancing of the club’s debts, secured against United’s assets, has seen hostility from fans and has raised concerns about the long-term financial stability of United. Executive Vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, is also about as popular as the American owners, and as a more public face of the board, probably receives more criticism than the Glazers. He oversaw a summer transfer window in 2013 which was described as “disastrous” after United failed to sign a number of potential transfer targets. He has received widespread disapproval in recent years after being accused of being more focused on promoting United as a worldwide brand than actual success on the pitch and it is this which seriously undermines Mourinho’s chances of success at Old Trafford. The board have shown a complete lack of identity, leadership and forward planning. Apart from the appointment of David Moyes (which in their defence no one foresaw just how bad it would end) and financially backing Mourinho’s first two summer transfer windows, they have stumbled from one season to the next without any clear strategy, it merely appears they were, at least in the short-term, prepared to throw money at Mourinho and see what happens.
Mourinho’s first season brought Champions League football and a couple of bonus trophies. That should have been the foundation for the following season and seasons afterwards, but the board have failed to act upon it and while it appears they are expecting United to compete for trophies on a consistent basis, as they did under Sir Alex Ferguson, they have hamstrung Mourinho financially this summer and thus have hardly set out to try and catch City or at least compete with Liverpool. Instead, they have set out their intentions to market United abroad and strike sponsorship deals on a whim. Perhaps they forget that what happens on the pitch is what brings in the sponsor’s cash in the first place?
Time waits for no man
Mourinho is still in his infancy at United; two full seasons is nowhere near enough to properly set out his intentions and work with the board to map out the club’s future. In comparison, this is Jürgen Klopp’s fourth season at Anfield and Pep Guardiola’s third season across the way from Mourinho at Manchester City. It is obvious Guardiola has delivered more in his short time at City, but Mourinho has had more success than Klopp, at least trophy-wise. United have won two trophies (three if you include the 2016 FA Community Shield), whereas Klopp has won none, it is true that Liverpool made last season’s Champions League final but that didn’t end in a win. So why is everyone not clamouring for Klopp to be sacked? The reality of the situation is all about perception; Liverpool are perceived to be an attractive, free-flowing juggernaut whereas Mourinho’s United are the poor relations, producing sleep-inducing performances consistent with that of Sunday League teams. This is only partially true, United are enduring a bad run of form and the public’s perception of this myth is fed by the media who have made Klopp’s team the darlings of tactical football; for every hero there needs to be a villain, but the media should be careful what they wish for as Maurizio Sarri found out at Napoli; pretty football doesn’t always win football matches.
Mourinho has improved United’s league finishes year upon year, while the appointments of Moyes and van Gaal were ultimately disasters and have set United back many years, the club needs stability and to sack Mourinho now would be sheer madness. For Mourinho to undo much of the bad work done by the two previous managers he needs more than two and a half or three seasons.
Not a people person?
Mourinho’s man-management style has been under the microscope since last season’s public bullying of Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford, Phil Jones and of course, his continued tiff with Pogba. Like all managers he’s not afraid to call out players and demand more from them, let’s not forget, under such pressure to succeed he is ultimately relying on the players to deliver wins and when they don’t, he is only too right to let them know what he thinks.
Maybe his methods do work though, Luke Shaw is a much-changed player this season, in fact, he can be rightly considered as United’s player of the season at this point, he has taken on board the comments made by his manager and Mourinho can take some credit for Shaw’s improved performances and attitude. Shaw isn’t alone, Mourinho has a history of singling out players for personal criticism, at Chelsea he brought more refined displays from Eden Hazard and did the same with Pepe at Real Madrid. This is his style, remember United’s most legendary manager, Ferguson, forced out bigger names when he thought they weren’t performing or becoming bigger than the club, with David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Roy Keane being his most high-profile casualties.
If we take away the Pogba/Mourinho pantomime, the atmosphere around United this season has been mostly positive, this despite their less than excellent start. Mourinho sang the praises of his players during their tour of the United States in pre-season, stating they were “professional” and “phenomenal.” When they were defeated by Tottenham Hotspur, 3-0 at Old Trafford, Mourinho commented on how United were the better team and were unfortunate to concede from Spurs’ first corner and from a deflection. After their Champions League win over BSC Young Boys, he picked out Shaw, Anthony Martial and Diogo Dalot as being the best players on the night.
Of course, he will be critical of underperforming players or those who choose to not act in the correct manner and undermine him. After the defeat by West Ham United, he spoke of United’s poor mentality and it is the right way to act, if he were to compliment his players after such a performance then there would be genuine cause for concern. It appears the average team form has coincided with the saga involving Pogba and has merely magnified the post-match comments dished out by the manager after a defeat. In order to lessen the spotlight on his man-management style United must remove Pogba as quickly as possible, however, the political layers to the argument mean simply transferring him isn’t as clear-cut as it appears. Surely, Mourinho will be the winner of his conflict with the Frenchman and has rightly told the press that no one is bigger than the club, the board simply have to back Mourinho or they risk future players undermining the manager. With Pogba out of the way, United will be fully able to concentrate their efforts on re-building team morale and winning matches consistently.
When money doesn’t buy success
When we look at United’s squad it should easily be able to compete in the Premier League and Champions League. However, football is a lot to do with confidence and no one would surely have predicted United’s biggest signings would take such a collective dip in form.
Most concerning is that of Alexis Sánchez, a player snatched from under the nose of their cross-city rivals, he should have been the much-needed support for Lukaku. However, despite scoring the winner against Newcastle and making a decent start to his United career after Christmas last season, he has alarmingly dipped in confidence and impact, to the point where he appears to have simply been shoehorned into the team.
Lukaku, United’s top goalscorer last season and current top goalscorer has been in and out of form, looking laboured and, like Sanchez, lacking in confidence; he is drawing criticism from even the most staunch United fans. He has always been something of a pure striker, rather than a provider, and has suffered from a lack of consistent service during his United career. His goals tally has masked this deficiency, but the chances aren’t coming as readily as they have, and he looks a different player.
Once a record signing for a teenager, Martial started his career at United under Van Gaal but was dropped as he initially struggled to adapt to Mourinho’s tactics. His poor form and lack of focus when been given the opportunities in the first team have led to rumours of United cutting their losses and selling him, with Spurs and Juventus apparently showing their interest.
United’s central defence has been very inconsistent for a while, even dating back to last season. The addition of a new centre-half would have been most welcome, but Mourinho has had to be content with Jones, Lindelof, Bailly and Chris Smalling. A combination which doesn’t strike opposing forwards with much fear and when they’re performing averagely they’re bound to struggle. Smalling and Jones, in particular, have been poor and Mourinho, given the chance, would surely have upgraded on them. Bailly, at least potential-wise, seems to be the best of those central defenders, but he too has been inconsistent and has struggled to hold down a regular first team place.
Pogba’s performances have been subject of much debate and will probably continue to be scrutinised until he performs at a much more consistent level. It’s fair to say Mourinho has struggled to find a perfect place to play him which will not only bring out the best in him but will also benefit his midfield partners. Having said that Pogba has seen plenty of playing time since his move from Juventus and the onus is partly on him to put in respectable displays. For a player of such ability, he has mostly looked inefficient and lost, with only a handful of match-winning performances.
Pogba’s continued public condemnation of Mourinho in a bid to have the last say in a row in which there will be no winner has rubbed off on a number of his teammates, with Antonio Valencia the latest player to be caught up among the in-fighting. Pogba is clearly unhappy with life under Mourinho but seems content to allow a number of his colleagues to be drawn into matters. If United are to turn round their fortunes this season they must rid the team of Pogba, his attitude is not welcome at a club which is trying to turn round an indifferent start.
United still have life in them, the season is only in October and they are handily placed in the Premier League and Champions League, the time is now to use the Newcastle win as a springboard for the rest of the season. Mourinho is a proven winner and he can guide the team out of this dip in form but he needs the backing of all his players, both on and off the pitch, and crucially, he needs the support of the board of directors.