The grumpy summer is threatening to become a grumpy season. After a strangely flat 2-1 win over Leicester City on the opening weekend, Manchester United’s 3-2 defeat at Brighton on Sunday has reignited the suspicion that third-season syndrome is about to strike Jose Mourinho again.
The pattern feels very familiar. Just like his final season at Chelsea, complaints about a lack of support from his board in the transfer market have been followed by indifferent form. This coming Monday’s fixture against Tottenham was always going to be important, but already it feels as though Mourinho is heading towards the precipice.
So what can United do?
WORK OUT AN ACTUAL PLAN
It seems obvious, but United’s spending since Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013–and possibly slightly before–has been scattergun, and the result is an incoherent and unbalanced squad. In that regard, Mourinho’s summer complaints were entirely justified. He does need fullbacks–it’s vaguely absurd that he’s perming two from Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw, two of whom are 33 and the other Mourinho has made clear he doesn’t rate. He probably also needs at least one center back, but given how poor Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, brought in at a cost of $90m, were in the Brighton defeat, the board’s reluctance to indulge him there is more understandable.
But the issue is greater than those specifics. Mourinho is a manager whose success has always been short-term, who has thrived largely by bringing in established talent, often with a point to prove. Those players have little resale value, and so a pattern develops. Since leaving Porto in 2004, Mourinho has been appointed by clubs who have been desperate to have him, and in the cases of Real Madrid and United, who were prepared to put aside scruples they had once had for the promise of an immediate impact. In his first months, Mourinho is then allowed essentially to do what he wants, to sign whoever he needs. After a while, though, directors start to look at the money going out and wonder whether signing younger, cheaper players with a resale value might be a better course of action. That tension is at least part of the cause of this summer’s problems.
But then you look at the four central defenders with whom United was strongly linked–Diego Godin, Toby Alderweireld, Harry Maguire and Yerry Mina–and realize they are not at all the same sort of player. So what is the plan? And if the board wants a manager who will sign more economically viable players, is Mourinho the manager to enact it?
SORT OUT THE DEFENSE
More immediately, Mourinho needs to get his defense playing properly again. Even against Leicester, David De Gea was called on to make two high-class saves. Against Brighton, United was in shambles. Putting together defenses that can stifle the opposition is supposed to be Mourinho’s great strength, but there has not been much of a sign of it recently.
Even last season, when United conceded just 28 goals in the league, there was a sense that the statistic was misleading given how often De Gea bailed the defense out. The absence of Nemanja Matic as he recovers from surgery on an abdominal issue doesn’t help, and the return of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones should provide a boost, but there is a need to get the basics right.
The suspicion is that against Tottenham, Mourinho will revert to the sort of safety-first suffocation he used successfully against Mauricio Pochettino’s side at Old Trafford last season.
RESOLVE MOURINHO’S RELATIONSHIP WITH PAUL POGBA
The latest round of sniping between Pogba and Mourinho began at the World Cup, when Mourinho suggested his midfielder had played well for France because the short nature of the tournament meant there was no time for him to become distracted. Pogba was reportedly unhappy at that, something that spilled over after the win over Leicester when, after being made captain and playing well, he was said he would be “fined” if he said what he really thought.
Last week brought reports of “a new low” in the relationship between Pogba and his manager, then on Sunday Pogba was insipid, gave the ball away 27 times and later admitted his attitude hadn’t been right, while suggesting Brighton had been “better prepared.”
FIND SOME PACE
Telling a team to be more coherent is a little like telling somebody to be more relaxed: nobody doubts it’s a laudable aim, but it’s not something that can just happen. Nonetheless, United has to work out a more efficient way of attacking that doesn’t involve laborious build-up through midfield. Even Brighton center back Leon Balogun spoke of his surprise at how “slow” United had been.
Mourinho has been criticized in the past, most notably by Eden Hazard, for the way he prefers to instill the right mentality in players rather than plan for specific circumstances. To an extent that’s a matter of preference, but there did seem to be a lack of direct instruction in, for instance, the way United conceded the penalty when, with Lindelof and Bailly split, De Gea smacked an awkward ball at Pogba in an area in which he was always going to come under pressure.