It feels mad to be comparing Jose Mourinho’s current situation at Manchester United to the conclusion of a blissful honeymoon period. Surely, we were due a longer love-in period than this? Have we skipped past the playful parts of this tryst already? Is it all downhill after those long mornings in bed, blissfully discussing the future and feeling like we could do anything together? It’s not even September for goodness’ sake; leaves remain on trees, young folk are only just returning to their studies and this season is still in its infancy. Yet here we are, dissecting three successive defeats in the space of eight days and wondering how United have fallen back into bad habits so quickly.
The short answer appears to be that no, we can’t have nice things for very long, not in this unstable land of Post-Ferguson hubris. Life since United’s players returned from September’s international break has been a stark return to the sort of football we thought we’d left behind when Louis van Gaal was shipped off to his Portuguese villa in May. After that blissful early season daze featuring that comfortable victory at home to Southampton, a deserved last-minute strike against Hull City and the lifting of that gigantic ceremonial plate at Wembley, reality has bitten down on United’s ankles hard, and it’s stubbornly refusing to let go until it’s acknowledged.
Let’s face it, the 4-2-3-1 formation that United deployed at the very start of this season has stopped working. Manchester City cut through it, Watford trotted through it and Feyenoord merely gently probed it and all three ended up being successful. There’s always a tendency to overdramatise situations like this, given the size of the club and the reputation that its new manager brings with him, not to mention the fact that, as stated, we’re in bloody September. But those three losses on the bounce, and the manner that United have performed in them have been slightly alarming to a fanbase that really wasn’t expecting to feel alarmed this early on in Mourinho’s reign in charge.
The problems facing this team during this (hopefully short) dip in form aren’t new to anyone, either, which is particularly frustrating. So often last season, when myself, Rich, Paul and Kev would record the podcast, we’d get stuck repeating the same damn problems with Van Gaal’s United on a weekly basis; if it wasn’t our inability to deal with pressure, it’d be our slow pace. If it wasn’t defensive lapses, then it’d be our crossing. If it wasn’t the manager, then it was the captain.
Patience has been preached so often over the last few years that it’s not a luxury that Mourinho has; not in abundance, anyway. Early days though it may be, it’s not unrealistic to expect more from him and his team, as he’s a serial winner that has added world class talent into a capable if not world-beating side. As such, there are great expectations surrounding the club, a greater demand for results and a level of pressure that this team haven’t felt in some time, but that’s something that The Special One and his players need to adjust to.
Mourinho is allowed to get things wrong; he’s human. Criticising Luke Shaw for a perceived defensive flaw during Watford’s second goal? That’s an error. Starting Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the derby? Error. Making Wayne Rooney the fulcrum of his side? Maybe he felt like had no choice; there’s an element to his continued selection that almost every single person who comments on the situation is never going to fully appreciate, due to our complete lack of knowledge as to the political situation in United’s dressing room. But let’s be frank, it’s still an error that has backfired on them both in spectacular fashion. Selecting Rooney against Watford was one thing; leaving him on the pitch for whole 90 minutes on Sunday given that his performance was a new nadir of awful made them both look bad. Problem is, it’s one of a stack of problems that Mourinho has to solve, and if he doesn’t, then he risks being drowned by this job.
It’s a tough role, managing Manchester United. The Portuguese has yet to fully unpick two years of Van Gaal’s regressive tactics and authoritarian voodoo, and he needs to simultaneously instil these players with the belief that they are actually, in fact, quite good, and don’t need to spend 70 minutes passing the ball from flank to flank. There have been signs, encouraging signs that things have improved from last season, none moreso than that last-minute Marcus Rashford winner at the KCOM Stadium, which was so wonderfully and quintessentially United that it was impossible not to be elated, and excited for the club’s immediate future. But fast forward a few weeks, and this job has already turned into a baptism of fire for Mourinho; bad results, bad performances, a disjointed formation and a team lacking in confidence. It’s been a concerning slump, make no mistake, but it won’t get any easier until he faces up to the issues currently plaguing this team, and deals with them. We’ve seen this man drop Iker Casillas and John Terry, both legends at their club when he thought they were done; big decisions that damaged the egos of big players, and that same strength needs to make a reappearance, sharpish.
What needs to be done? If you’re asking me, drop Rooney, create a team around that bloke we spent £89m on, encourage this team in private and protect them in public. All easier said than done, but Mourinho must’ve known that the United job is far from easy long before he took over. It’s difficult to suggest strategies that will stop this team from collectively dropping their heads whenever a goal is conceded, but it’s a psychological block that needs to be addressed soon. No one will simply hand Mourinho and his team success, no matter how much money is spent on it, and it’s up to him and his staff to fix three years of underachievement and force some confidence into a team that hasn’t had a resource as valuable as that on tap for some time.
It’s early days. He will get time, but a big test has arrived much sooner than anyone could have expected during Mourinho’s short reign at United, and it’s up to him to prove that he’s capable of passing it.