It’s been a bit of a week for Manchester United fans.
Actually, to be honest, it’s been a bit of a year for Manchester United fans.
After watching their fiercest rivals walk away with the Premier League title in historic fashion, it was presumed that they would go big in the transfer market and really make a statement to clubs, not just in England, but around Europe.
In total, 57 players were linked with the Red Devils during the summer transfer window – in the end, just three arrived. Well, two plus Lee Grant.
And all that angst, all that frustration came to a head at the weekend as United put in one of their worst post-Ferguson performances, going down 3-2 to Brighton.
There’s been plenty of head-scrambling and hand-wringing since then, but who, really, is to blame for this malaise?
It all started around March. Manchester United had been unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League by Sevilla and slowly, the Mourinho facade began to unravel. After one of the most eye-gaugingly terrible 0-0 draws in Spain, the English giants welcomed the Andalusian’s back to Old Trafford and then produced a performance so limp and broken it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a fracture unit.
First came the pointed fingers from José – at the press, at the players, at the fans – and then, after a few days, came the leaks from inside the dressing room. A report in The Telegraph revealed that the squad was supposedly “shocked” by the treatment of Luke Shaw, who the manager had called out on repeated occasions in the press.
That, hindsight tells us now, was the beginning of the end for the Portuguese coach at Manchester United. The pattern has been repeated ad nauseam since then. Call out Player X in the press, flail your arms and make a show on the touchline, repeat the comments post-game and backtrack when you realise the tactic isn’t working.
It’s been said before that Mourinho is yesterday’s man, but that’s never been clearer in his relationship with this squad and how he tries to get the best out of them. For better or worse, this United group – full if young, dynamic, Instagrammable footballers, just aren’t going to respond to the same rallying cries that the Chelsea of ’05 or Inter of ’10 would. You can cry ‘these kids don’t know they’re born’ or ‘this used to be a man’s game’ all you want, but the paradigm has shifted, generations have changed. Mourinho just hasn’t.
His treatment of Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Victor Lindelöf and Eric Bailly have all been tired, outdated and not befitting supposedly one of the best managers in the game. When you’re winning, those foibles can be tolerated. When you’re playing the brand of football Mourinho’s playing, with one of the most expensively-assembled XIs in the history of the game, they can’t.
There’s plenty of reasons his time at Old Trafford is up, but the treatment of, and relationship with, the players is the most screamingly obvious one.
There’s clearly an issue with the way this Manchester United team is being set up, coached and motivated. But after a while, surely, there comes a time when the players’ themselves have to stand up, look themselves in the mirror, and try to be counted.
Without resorting to the Proper Football Man cliches, every time you watch this United team you’re thinking ‘where’s the effort lads?’ Brighton at the weekend was the perfect example.
Yes, it didn’t make much sense to have Juan Mata and Ashley Young as the two men covering the right-hand side; yes, the substitutions were a little weird; yes, David De Gea looks a shadow of his former self.
But in all, over the 90 minutes, United ran an accumulative total of 95km – the only teams in Premier League history who have ran less than that have had 10 men. Really. Martial didn’t complete a pass to Romelu Lukaku in the 68 minutes he was on the pitch. Pogba gave the ball away 27 times.
We can call out the tactics all we want. But let’s call this for what it is: right now, the United players are trying to get their manager sacked, and frankly, that’s not becoming of the world’s biggest club.
As the saying may or may not go: if you dance with the Devil, don’t be surprised if he changes his tune. Ed Woodward knew what he was getting himself into when he hired José Mourinho and now he’s feeling the inevitable consequences.
The departure of Sir Alex Ferguson was obviously a seismic moment in the history of Manchester United. The greatest manager the game’s ever seen was leaving after 27 years, and with that, clearly, was going to be a period of period of uncertainty.
Perhaps the biggest mistake over that whole period though was not the hiring of David Moyes – whose initial contract would still have a year to run by the way – but the retiring of chief executive David Gill at the same time. Gill was the yin to Ferguson’s yang, someone who the manager confided in and trusted to make the right decisions as the club grew from a domestic behemoth to a true global sporting giant.
With the announcement that Sir Alex and his right-hand man would be departing simultaneously, so was left an almost unassailable void at the heart of the club – and although the Moyesiah was just “given the job on a technicality by a legend who recommended him” it was Woodward’s later decisions that have truly baffled.
The hiring of Louis van Gaal in the first place was a strange one, but to then sack him after an FA Cup win showed the United were now no better than other clubs in the Premier League – top four finishes more valuable than trophies. The pursuit, and the purchase of players with big names but very little in the way of big game performances – Ángel Di Maria, Alexis Sánchez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mempis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin.
There’s been no plan at Old Trafford for the past five years and the hiring of Mourinho in 2016 was the acknowledgment of that.
With the team outside the top four and quickly becoming second class citizens in Europe, bringing in Mourinho was always with one objective in mind: win, no matter what.
The problem is though, on the pitch and after three years, they’re not winning.
But that’s the thing. Off the pitch, United are more valuable than ever. Woodward’s job, really, is to make more money for the Glazer family than they’ve ever made before – and in that respect, he might be the best executive vice-chairman in the world.
The problem however, is in place of trophies, the club have instead picked up official noodle and tractor partners.
Perhaps this summer, with the lack of investment in the squad and the rebuffal of Mourinho’s preferred transfer targets – Toby Alderweireld, Harry Maguire, Yerry Mina – Woodward has finally realised that the former Champions League winning manager is exactly that: former.