- The Red Devils kick-off their EPL campaign against Leicester City on Friday, but given a strange preseason in which their manager seemed extremely ill-tempered, criticizing players and a fruitless transfer window, it would be fair to say that Man United should be ready for an unstable third season under the Portuguese coach.
The build-up to this Premier League season has been difficult for every club. Players who played in Russia were given extended breaks and only just began returning to training the week before the season begins, while the transfer window, curtailed this season anyway by the decision that it should end on Auguts 9, before the season’s first fixtures are played, has been squeezed even further by the difficulty of doing business the World Cup. Some managers have accepted that. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp both seemed to spend their cubs’ tour to the US talking of the fun and the challenge of working with young players of preparing them for the future. But not Jose Mourinho.
“Do you want me to be very happy with the players [Alexis Sanchez] has around him?” he asked after United’s 4-1 defeat in Michigan. “We are not playing here to improve the team, the dynamic or our routines. We are playing just to try to survive and not have some ugly results…. This is not our team, this is not our squad - not even 30 per cent of it. We start the game with almost half the players who are not even going to belong to our squad on August 9."
Mourinho, even by his own standards, has been spectacularly grumpy this pre-season. There were complaints about referees, complaints about the lack of good players coming through at Under-23 level and complaints about players going on holiday. Some of those, perhaps, are justified, although he presumably signed off on players’ holidays. Criticizing Anthony Martial for attending the birth of his child seemed a little excessive.
But then there is the big issue, that of transfers. The only senior player to have arrived at the club this summer is Fred. The midfielder has probably been United’s most promising player in pre-season, but that perhaps only underlines the fact that new blood could reinvigorate the squad. Mourinho wants a central defender – perhaps Harry Maguire or Tony Alderweireld – and a wide man – the interest in Ivan Perisic seems to have waned but his Croatia team-mate Ante Rebic is on the radar. Ed Woodward, the CEO, seems to have made little progress in signing them.
This is indicative of a much deeper problem. United’s transfer policy since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 has been oddly scattergun and the result is an unbalanced and expensive squad built to little discernible plan. There are rumblings now that certain directors want to change approach, and start buying younger talent to develop, but if that is to be the plan, Mourinho is the wrong coach to enact it; he does not develop players and he does not, despite his claims to the contrary, have any great record of working with youth. That hints at a fundamental rift within the club that is only likely to exacerbate the issues Mourinho habitually runs into in his third season in any job.
And then there’s the issue of Paul Pogba, United’s most expensive signing. Pogba excelled at the World Cup, playing with great restraint and tactical intelligence alongside N’Golo Kante in a 4-2-3-1. He has never looked comfortable in a two at United, though, leading to questions about why Didider Deschamps could get the best out of him in a way that Mourinho has so far been unable to. "It's about him understanding why he was so good, especially in the second part of the competition," Mourinho said, which at least was an acknowledgement of the issue, if not necessarily a solution.
But that in itself is part of the problem. By the third season, Mourinho’s griping, his relentless abrasiveness, tends to wear down those he works with, players and coaches. This season he doesn’t even have Rui Faria, his long-tie lieutenant who acted as liaison with the players, alongside him. At what point do players tire of the constant politicking and manoeuvring and start to contemplate a future beyond Mourinho?
What’s perhaps especially telling is where Mourinho has been aiming his propaganda this summer. Much of it, understandably, has been aimed at his own board and its failure to land him the players he wants. But the rest has largely been directed at Liverpool. That suggests that is it Klopp’s side Mourinho sees as United’s biggest rivals this season, which in turn means he has already dismissed Manchester City as being out of reach and the battle being for second and third.
That is unlikely to satisfy anybody at United – fans, players, board or Mourinho – and as frustration mounts an already febrile situation is only likely to become more unstable.