‘Respect! Respect! Respect!’ shouted Jose Mourinho as he left a combative news conference after a 3-0 defeat from Spurs at Old Trafford on Monday. Each ‘respect’ was a reference to his number of Premier League titles. After finishing second to Manchester City last season, he feels he gets a hard time and deserves more reverence.
Like every desperate coach of a major team, he defended himself with the classic old line that United were not actually defeated on the night – Spurs just happened to score more goals. In terms of tactics and work-rate, United had ‘won’ the game. Nobody in the room was buying into that.
We reported in the latter stages of last season that Mourinho’s erratic moods and behaviour often precede his departure. It’s happened at Chelsea and Real Madrid and seems to be playing out again at Manchester United.
A troubled start
Despite some gloom around Old Trafford, United began the season with a routine win over Leicester. Paul Pogba was the all-conquering hero returned from the World Cup and Luke Shaw was suddenly the raiding left-back that he was supposed to be.
The next 45 minutes at Brighton shattered any illusions that United were settled and in good form. They conceded three goals in a chaotic defensive performance and eventually lost 3-2. A poor result, but surely just a blip?
Then came the clash with Spurs in the first Monday night fixture of the new season. United dominated the first half but couldn’t score. Romelu Lukaku missed an open goal. United’s defence crumbled in the second half as Spurs ran out comfortable 3-0 winners. Cue the crisis.
It became clear all was not well at United with Mourinho’s lack of enthusiasm for their pre-season tour in the US. He wasn’t in control of the situation with his top players still resting after World Cup duty and didn’t like it. He rubbished the tour to the annoyance of sponsors and his board.
Mourinho’s dark mood also stemmed from failure in the summer transfer market. He wanted fresh talent at Old Trafford with defenders Harry McGuire and Toby Alderweireld notable targets. The Manchester United board declined to indulge Mourinho any further.
His performance at the press conference before the Spurs match was downbeat and lasted barely four minutes. By arriving and leaving early, was he trying to upset the assembled media? Is it all part of his act, or is he genuinely struggling for answers and his enthusiasm has gone?
Star players – big problems
With a squad full of huge international names there’s always going to be problems managing them. Star players returning from the World Cup are only part of it.
Paul Pogba and Mourinho have history between them. A lot is expected of Pogba, especially now that he’s a World Cup winner with France. Mourinho has praised his midfielder, yet rumours of an Old Trafford exit persist. Is this down to the manager or the player?
Mourinho wanted to offload French striker, Anthony Martial, but United’s board view him as a potential superstar worth keeping. So, United are left with a striker who knows he’s unwanted by his manager, and a manager who is frustrated by his board.
United’s defence remains a fluid work in progress. Mourinho doesn’t seem to know what his best combination is. There’s always squad rotation in a busy season like United’s, but too many changes result in the serious flaws revealed in the Brighton and Spurs matches.
Ed Woodward and the board
Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, and his board knew that Jose Mourinho came with a reputation of being difficult to handle. He has a great record of success but doesn’t hang around too long. Long term strategy is not Mourinho’s strength.
The problem for those running United is that in chasing success and appeasing Mourinho’s ego, how much money can they afford to blow in today’s inflated transfer market? It appears that even United have limits to their spending.
Was Mourinho sending a message to his board about his lack of defensive options by starting with midfielder Ander Herrera in a back three against Spurs? It was certainly a bold choice that backfired. The board seem to think that Mourinho has all the resources he needs. The ‘Special One’ clearly disagrees.
It’s reported that Mourinho had a longer than usual debrief with Woodward following one of the worst home defeats in his long career. Obviously there was a lot to talk about and cool heads were required.
Although not specifically stated, in the meantime Mourinho appears to have the dreaded vote of confidence. This is so often the prelude to more bad results and a parting by mutual consent (you’re sacked!).
The pressure on Mourinho is now cranked all the way to the top. Will he revert to pragmatic but dull tactics to earn a few wins and give himself some breathing space? The problem here is that United’s fans not only expect to win, but win with style. More turgid football could alienate his most loyal fans.
Where now for United?
United’s fans may love Mourinho, but the board has a responsibility to ensure what’s best for them, the club and its shareholders. Contingency and succession plans are in place and may already be in motion.
Managers come and managers go – including Mourinho. United were spoiled by the longevity and success enjoyed by Alex Ferguson and are still coming to terms with his departure.
Unless there is a dramatic turnaround this story will only end one way. Mourinho will leave and the board will shoulder the blame. However, United will still be one of the biggest clubs in the world. They will move on and start again with a new man in charge.
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