‘Mourinho really has his hands full at United. Poor squad, no leaders, no goals. Miles behind the top 4/5.’
That was the tweet of one journalist as he watched Manchester United look slow, ponderous and so very poor against Fenerbahce. Except when you check his pre-season predictions, you see that he had tipped United to win the Premier League title, along with three of his five colleagues who were also asked.
A squad that could win the title three months ago (though ‘will be nip and tuck between United and Manchester City and the race could go either way’) after a summer of investment totalling £150m and a Zlatan is now being denigrated as lacking in almost every department.
And it’s not just Mark Ogden of The Independent who has performed that u-turn; it has been ehoed across the media. Mediawatch has highlighted Ian Ladyman of the Daily Mail, who has repeatedly written about the ‘limitations’ of this United squad just months after tipping them to finish second behind City, while The Sun’s Neil Custis left just two weeks between writing how Mourinho had ‘turned Manchester United around to become the force of old in just three months‘ and then that United ‘are stuttering, and Jose Mourinho thinks some players are still confused by LVG’s philosophy‘.
It’s like a collective brainwashing has taken place. It made sense in August that United would challenge for the title because they missed out on the Champions League on goal difference alone, had just won silverware, had spent £150m on new players and they had a serial title winner in charge. “We feel that we are candidates to win the title,” said Mourinho and we all agreed; you bloody well should be.
But as the weeks went on and it became clear that United were not in the same class as Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea, almost everybody has agreed that actually, this squad is useless. It lacks leaders. It lacks winners. It lacks goals. It is hanging onto bad habits. This squad that finished level on points with City and then indulged in a similar amount of summer spending is understandably already eight points adrift; how could Jose possibly achieve anything with these players?
No goals? They brought in three players this summer in Zlatan Ibrahmimovic, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan who scored 57 league goals and assisted 40 more last season. No winners? Seven players remain from the last time they won the title and Pogba and Ibrahimovic have umpteen medals between them.
Nobody looked at that squad in August and said they were lacking; nobody looked at that squad at the start of September after four straight wins and said they were lacking. And yet here we are in November – with United below Watford in the table, having beaten only Northampton away in their last six attempts – and we are told that there are massive problems with this set of players. Journalists have been briefed that Mourinho wants a whole new defence, that Marcus Rashford is tired and that many of the players are struggling to shake off the Van Gaal era.
After criticising United for their 0-0 draw with Burnley, we were told that the result was immaterial because United had played with the kind of vim and vigour not seen under Van Gaal. By Thursday, the performance was back to the very worst of the Dutchman’s reign. “Too much possession, not enough threat,” said Owen Hargreaves and that entirely summed up the problem.
United played with so little invention it looked like one of those training exercises where you’re not allowed to shoot and get ordered into star jumps if you lose the ball. They played with so little width that it regularly looked like United were playing with five No. 10s. They summoned some slight urgency as the clock ticked over to 89 minutes but any equaliser would have been a travesty.
This is a football team whose whole is currently far, far less than the sum of its parts – the exact opposite of what is happening under other new managers elsewhere. Antonio Conte has taken the same footballers who were so, so limited under Mourinho and changed their mentality along with their formation, Pep Guardiola is top of the league and astonishingly beating Barcelona within months of introducing his philosophy and new managers at Everton, Southampton and Watford are quietly making a mockery of the concept of a difficult transition.
We were told time and time again that the woes of the last three seasons were the fault of David Moyes and then Van Gaal and now, when Mourinho is managing an improved squad and the results are even worse, it’s entirely down to the paucity of his personnel. Sorry but that stinks.