In a post-Ferguson world, what Jose Mourinho has accomplished this season looks to be impressive. He’s seemingly achieved the progress that has been sorely needed at Old Trafford in the last 5 years. They’ve reached a record ‘post-Ferguson’ points tally – with 6 games to spare – and are as high on the Premier League table as they have been since the Scot retired in 2013.
United look to be getting back to their old selves. They beat all the top sides in the league this season – in fact, they became only the 4th side in Premier League history to beat all other 19 teams in a single season. They’ve much improved their home form; only Manchester City and West Brom have won at Old Trafford in the league during Mourinho’s tenure. And most importantly, United have stopped worrying about not qualifying for the Champions League.
Where’s the praise for Manchester United?
And yet, fans have been wondering where the praise is. They see sides like Liverpool and Tottenham, both below United in the table, get praised in the media while United get criticised. But do United deserve the praise that fans are clamouring for?
Sure, the table doesn’t lie. United are, in fact, above both Liverpool and Tottenham, but there are reasons as to why United’s rivals deserve praise and United themselves don’t.
For one, United have had numerous poor performances this season. Too many for them to simply be put down to a bad day at the office, or a one-off. While United did start the season spectacularly – 4-0 wins against West Ham, Swansea, Crystal Palace and Everton were all huge improvements over last season – it was the 0-0 draw at Anfield that signalled the beginning of United’s regression to the mean.
It was that draw back in October that really destroyed United’s momentum. It was a time that Liverpool were at the worst they’d be all season and were really there for the taking. Yet, Mourinho set the team up with no intent to attack, with no intent to push Liverpool and take advantage of their poor form.
This was just the first in a string of limp United displays. The matches against Man City, Burnley, Southampton, Tottenham, Sevilla and, most recently, West Brom showed all the signs of a United side with no vision, no cohesion and most importantly no plan.
Old Trafford is dead
The dangerous thing about all of those matches is that they were all at home – except for the Tottenham match, which was at Wembley, where both sides meet this Saturday. No wonder the atmosphere at Old Trafford is dead; so is the football being played there.
When United aren’t performing for the Old Trafford crowd there is this Van Gaal-ian anxiety around the stadium that is like a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to a defeat. Mourinho doesn’t help his cause either by not playing fan favourite players like Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.
There is this animosity from Mourinho that just worsens the problems at United. His side doesn’t even need to have performed poorly for him to tear in to the squad. After the 2-0 extinction of Brighton from the FA Cup in March, Mourinho described Nemanja Matic as “an island of personality”.
And it has been Matic, and almost Matic alone, that has escaped criticism from Mourinho this season. Seemingly everyone bar the Serb, David de Gea and Romelu Lukaku is on Mourinho’s hitlist – with Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba and Martial being at the very top.
This toxic atmosphere that Mourinho is perpetuating around the United dressing room can only end badly. We’ve seen it at Chelsea and at Real Madrid. The Portuguese overstays his welcome and the players have enough of his antics. Just how much longer until this happens with Pogba and co.?
The much maligned Mourinho
That too leads to the particularly worrying sign for Mourinho. Manchester United are the first club that he hasn’t led to a league title during his second season. That includes his stint at Real Madrid where he became the first manager to stop Pep Guardiola from enjoying league success. He’s been completely powerless to stop his managerial rival from walking the league this season.
Mourinho also achieved both of his Champions League successes in his second seasons at Porto and Inter Milan. The second season is the pinnacle of the Mourinho managerial cycle. If this is as good as it gets for United, then there is a lot more to worry about for their immediate future.
Mourinho has shown no sign of turning around his penchant for a miserable third season – it is especially worrying for Manchester United Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward who agreed with Mourinho to sign a contract extension back in January.
There have also been several complaints from the United manager this season about the lack of money being spent. But money being spent certainly isn’t the problem for United, they have proven themselves to be one of the highest spending clubs in the world.
However, the way in which money has been spent, by Mourinho, has been far from frugal. The then world record fee of 89 million pounds on Pogba seemed like the kind of landmark investment that would help launch United back to the summit of the English game. In his two years at the club, Pogba has failed to impress consistently and Mourinho appears to be losing patience with his star playmaker.
The 35 million pounds spent on Victor Lindelof, as well as the 27 million pounds spent on Henrikh Mkhitaryan are further proof of poor uses of resources. Even the 30 million signing of Eric Bailly has proven unfortunate, even though he is a fantastic defender he is constantly getting injured and now cannot get into a team that is starting Chris Smalling instead of him.
United haven’t spent significantly less than their local rivals
It is easy to complain that Man City are spending more than anyone, but United haven’t spent significantly less than their local rivals. Yet, City have proven they have a clear vision of the kind of team they want and such have been able to find the players who will best fit into that team.
The January signing of Alexis Sanchez is proof of the opposite of that at Manchester United. Sanchez is the kind of signing that Mourinho has perfected during his time in England. He is the kind of signing that was made because Mourinho didn’t want City to have him so, without regard for his own side, he ordered the purchase of the Chilean international.
This is the kind of signing you won’t see at Tottenham or Liverpool. Instead, those clubs, much like City, are recruiting players that the manager knows will best suit the brand of attacking football that they wish to implement in their sides.
This kind of vision, this cohesion, is why United don’t deserve praise for being the best losers in the Premier League. Under Mourinho, there doesn’t look to be a grand plan to bring back the title to the red side of Manchester, just a feeble attempt to stop the blue half.
With United, everything is still thought of in terms of post-Ferguson despite 5 years having passed since the legendary manager retired. United need to move on, they need to think in terms of post-post-Ferguson before they can even dream of relishing the sweet smell of success.