Jose Mourinho enjoyed a successful first season in charge at Manchester United and the start of his second season promised plenty initially, but in recent weeks there have been signs of a storm brewing at Old Trafford.
After taking over from Louis Van Gaal for the 2016/2017 campaign, Mourinho and Manchester United completed a strong season. They won the Community Shield, the EFL Cup and the UEFA Europa League. The latter triumph offset the disappointment of finishing sixth in the Premier League because United qualified for the UEFA Champions League as Europa League winners.
The start of the 2016/2017 season has seen The Red Devils and The Special One build on the success of last term. They currently occupy second in the Premier League with 20 points from a possible 27, sit top of Group A in the Champions League with a 100 per cent record after three games and are very much alive and kicking in their EFL Cup defence after beating Burton 4-1 in the third round.
However, don’t be fooled. Recent weeks have showed that Mourinho and his group of players are far from invisible. The swell is picking up and the boat is rocking, the question is whether they can get to safer waters before a storm starts.
The first red flag came after the international break. Liverpool were the opponents and their defensive frailties have been clear for all to see this season.
However, bizarrely, United opted to sit back and park the bus. The result? A dull 0-0 draw.
Fox Sports Asia’s very own John Dykes is of the opinion that that was a huge mistake on Mourinho’s behalf. Speaking after Spurs demolished Liverpool 4-1 on Sunday, Dykes had this to say:
“Spurs knew full well, just as Mourinho should have done when they went to Anfield – I’m not going to let that one go – that they should have attacked a Liverpool side that always concedes goals if you ask a question or two of their defence.”
Next-up were Premier League newcomers Huddersfield. And the Yorkshire outfit dished up a 2-1 defeat to United. The performance and the result were bad enough and spoke for themselves.
However, Mourinho’s comments after the game only amplified matters.
“I don’t even remember a friendly match where our attitude was so poor,” he said.
“We could have a second goal and a draw but it would have been an undeserved draw.
“I feel really disappointed and if I was a Manchester United supporter, not a manager, I would be really disappointed because I think you can play and lose because the opponent had more quality but not because the opponent had more attitude.”
There are two big takeaways here. The first being the more obvious one. Mourinho felt his team lost because they lacked desire. At such an early stage in the season, that is cause for alarm. Is the group together or are the players divided?
The second big takeaway is Mourinho criticising his players in public. There were many angles he could have used to defend the lacklustre showing – that fixture was United’s third in the space of seven days, his squad have hardly put a foot wrong this season and were due a below-par performance, the conditions were tough, they were away from home, they were missing key personnel etc.
Yet he chose to publicly call out his players. The tone and choice of his words were similar to those he used at Chelsea when he lost the change-room during his second stint at the club.
The loss to Huddersfield also brought light to a new problem that Mourinho will have to crack if his team are going to challenge for silverware this season.
“When you look at United, they’re obviously a top quality side but they don’t really play with the same fluidity as your Spurs or your Man Citys,’ said the Huddersfield forward Tom Ince after the match.
“They build up the game quite slow, they like to get it out wide and we felt that if we could win the ball back and try to exploit the space in behind – the space the full-backs leave because they go so high – then we were able to do that.”
Many share Ince’s sentiment. In case it’s not clear enough, United’s attacking approach is dependent on their wide defenders pushing far up both flanks. Sure, they create chances but they also leave their two central defenders exposed with plenty of space to cover. However, if the wide defenders are not so adventurous, United lack penetration going forward.
It’s a fascinating conundrum and Mourinho needs to work-out a way of creating goal-scoring opportunities without leaving David De Gea with too much work to do at the back.
If defensive stability is traded-off for goals at the other end then United might well finish in the top-four this season but will definitely not win enough games to challenge for the title.
Similarly, if those full backs continuously leave the central defenders exposed, then United will have no problems scoring goals but they’ll concede plenty too.
“Balance,” said Edward Abbey.
“That’s the secret. Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds.”
It’s certainly not time to jump overboard. The storm is nowhere near that bad and the boat seems equipped to deal with far rougher waters than this. However, that said, things happen quickly in the Premier League and there is bad weather on the horizon – Spurs and Chelsea await in the League. Mourinho needs to steer the boat to calmer waters. The coming weeks could well define Manchester United’s title charge.