By Iwan Lehnert
On Sunday evening, not long before 6pm when Martin Atkinson was blowing for full time at a chilly Anfield, I sat back and felt pretty far from anger. Losing to Liverpool is never nice, especially when you’ve been outshot as viciously as Manchester United were, but where such a result against our arch rival would normally provoke frustration, embarrassment and an ounce or two of vitriol, the overwhelming feeling was one of grim acceptance. We’ve come to expect little else from watching this side under Jose Mourinho and the hallmarks of this current malaise were there for all to see last weekend; a disorganised defence low on confidence, a workmanlike midfield with no creativity and a jagged, broken attack. Seeing this team overwhelmed by a well-drilled, confident and spirited side was no surprise; the only real shock was how numb it all felt.
Nothing looked like it would change; fans theorised that the club’s board were unprepared to pull the trigger on account of the eye-watering severance package that Mourinho would be due and given United’s history of jettisoning his last two predecessors once European qualification was impossible, it appeared that the status quo would be maintained.
It was with uncharacteristic efficiency, then, that United announced that Mourinho had been sacked on Tuesday morning, barely a day after Manchester’s press pack had been briefed that no change was incoming. No news was leaked ahead of time and none of the country’s football writers or journalist had any inkling, allowing United to carry out some much-needed administration in surprisingly effective fashion.
And my God, was it ever needed. How despondent, beaten and reactive this set of players has looked over the last few months, bouncing from one underwhelming performance and result to another with the relative solidity and partial fluidity of last season a distant memory. United have been drowning since August, sitting in 6th place and conceding goals with alarming ease in their worst start to a Premier League campaign since 1990/91. No one can be surprised that Mourinho has been given the boot at this stage; the surprise is, given previous form, that United have acted as relatively early as they have.
Not that this sacking will cure all of United’s ills, of course. Talk of getting a director of football is all well and good, and it wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest that Mourinho’s lack of willingness to accept one counted against him when Ed Woodward was finalising his decision. But until it actually happens, talk is all is. The Glazers continue to exist, of course, like a semi-comatose leech only periodically waking to check if they’re still sucking a sufficient amount of money out of the club and the pressure on this group of players to turn this malfunctioning season around has just increased significantly increased now that their managerial adversary has left the building.
Still, giving Mourinho his marching orders is a step in the right direction. Confidence on United’s board is still understandably low when it comes to making decisions in the team’s best interests, with a replacement caretaker duo of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mike Phelan scratching a nostalgic and romantic itch but hardly a safe bet. Even so, isn’t the uncertainty of the Norwegian’s suitability for the role on a part-time basis a far more palatable proposition than the toxic certainty of failure that the Portuguese was offering?
Regardless, United have given themselves a chance to salvage something from this season. A top four finish looks unlikely given how many points rivals would be required to drop and Paris Saint Germain represent difficult opposition in the last 16 of the Champions League. Still, after last year’s limp exit to Sevilla and this season’s domestic turmoil, Solskjaer and this side will struggle to replicate such underachievement.
All eyes will be on the Welsh capital on Saturday evening. Plenty of players will be fighting for their place in the starting XI and desperate to prove themselves to a man who is just as desperate to prove himself in the biggest challenge of his career; managing Manchester United is never an easy job and Solskjaer has much to do in order to properly banish the aura of negativity surrounding the club (maybe an exorcism would help). Much needs to be done to turn this season around, including getting a group of underperforming players to perform whose confidence appears to be stuck one of Carrington’s presumably luxurious toilets. Plenty need to step up and prove that their character assassinations under their previous boss were unwarranted. It won’t be easy; it never is with United, but with a goal difference of zero, after an awful run of results and after a deeply tumultuous and divisive period in the club’s history, Saturday’s game at Cardiff City is a good place for Manchester United, from top to bottom, to start attempting to banish the darkness.