The start of the new Premier League season has been a difficult one for anyone who has any association with Manchester United, and when you look across town at the Etihad Stadium or in Merseyside at Anfield, you wonder how the situation could have been all so different. However, can we realistically say that there is no sense of fascination, albeit waning, in the “where have we seen this before” rhetoric with Jose Mourinho?
There are those that love to see him suffer, to see him with his back up against the wall. Some are quite tired of the usual antics from the Portuguese manager. Others would say that the treatment of the man in press conferences and the media, mixed with the perceivable lack of support by United’s chief executive, Ed Woodward, is unfair and people must look at the overall picture: when Mourinho came in at United, the team were in a precarious position, with their rivals looking forward rather than over their shoulders, and are now a much better outfit.
He has brought some needed stability to a team that had become uncharacteristically unappealing and bland.
However, with two seasons under his belt and a somewhat solid platform that he could have used to kick on in his third season, Mourinho has found himself being criticized for his unhappy mood and gloomy persona that have followed him from a difficult pre-season.
His demands for “respect, respect, respect” and the usual deflection tactics after the defeat to Tottenham Hotspur made him look like a man whose ego had been bruised, desperately holding on to what seems relevant to him, but such scenes have been lost on the wider audience who are looking more to the future rather than past glories.
Is he justified for wanting respect for winning three Premier League titles, amongst his other achievements at various clubs? Probably. Will he be held as one of the greatest managers in the world when he finally decides to hang up his managerial boots? Most definitely.
A comfortable win against an out-of-sorts Burnley team would only take the heat off of him for the moment, and so the international break can provide some time to reflect on what has been a disappointing start by his standards. What may come from his reflections would be anyone’s guess, but with a banner flown overhead at Turf Moor taking a swipe at Woodward as a “specialist in failure”, there seems to be a clear winner in the fans’ eyes at this present moment, and that is Mourinho.
From his one-minute applause of defiance at the Stretford End, to the encouragement afforded to players after the body blow given to them by Spurs; to appreciating the travelling supporters in Lancashire and handing his jacket to a young fan amid chants of “Mourinho’s Red Army”, the creation of a siege mentality and this ‘modified Jose’ aura may be his light at the end of a tricky dark tunnel, the security he may need to carry on.
United supporters have always had an uncomfortable relationship with the Glazer family, and with a lack of support from the board in the transfer window, the majority of supporters would gladly give their all to the Mourinho cause. Although there are those that are against the current managerial regime, there is a sense of loyalty and understanding from a fanbase that is desperate for success. This must not be taken for granted.
In their eyes, Mourinho was the only man that could take United to the very top once again. They must have known that he may not bring the glory days back via ‘the United Way’, but that has not been seen at Old Trafford for a number of years now. He has his own lane of operations, classic Mourinho and all, so rather than spewing complaints about his managerial philosophy, why not stomach the gritty performances and celebrate the triumphs that he has brought so far?
A change in Mourinho’s approach would be a welcome one, but it needs to be sustained, and the hope is that this is not a calculated move to calm the storm in the short-term. The current situation at the club, both on and off the pitch, is one that cannot go on for much longer if United want to be taken seriously by a football world that is enjoying their failings.
What has been disappointing to see from the current United regime is the clear lack of identity, long-term planning and, now, the possible divergence of ideas between manager and chief executive in the transfer window.
Mourinho wanted his customary ready-made, trustworthy lieutenants, whilst Woodward was looking at younger, more profitable prospects to develop for the long-term success of the club, both financially and on the pitch. Mourinho is a man for the short-term, so with this in mind, as well as the renewal of his contract, surely the manager needed to be supported with the funds necessary to build on the recruitment that has been done so far?
Modern football thrives on ‘progression’ and ‘evolution’, and although United and Mourinho have an air of confusion about their current operation, the change of approach against Spurs was an encouraging showing, with an emphasis on pressing higher up the pitch and having more shots on goal. United were frantic and ran hard in the first half, and could have been ahead at half-time, but their defensive frailties came to haunt them against a side that were flustered at first, but slowly grew into their own in the second half.
Against Burnley, Romelu Lukaku made clever runs into the channels, with less emphasis on having his back to goal, Luke Shaw continued his impressive form at left back, Paul Pogba was more direct in his passing, Jesse Lingard was inventive in his movement and Alexis Sanchez was much better with his final ball and his overall link-up play. If there is a change of thinking, which could be attributed to the influence that Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna may be having at Carrington, then it needs to be maintained.
It is never too late to mount a credible title challenge in September, so the good news is that Mourinho has time on his side. The key players, too, seem to be on his side, and any signs of player mutiny have not been evident recently, Lukaku stating that Mourinho is actually “a really good guy” away from the cameras, and Shaw opening up about Mourinho’s treatment of him, stating that the manager knew he could do better, and is now reaping the rewards of his criticism masked as motivation.
For Mourinho, this may be his last chance at elite management at an elite club. What supporters have wanted from the very start was for him to embrace the opportunity, to take his time in building a team reminiscent of the glory days before Moyes and Van Gaal, to lift the gloom that had embedded itself in the snoozy Theatre of Dreams, and create a culture that made United one of the most feared teams to play against for more than two decades.
A consistent starting line-up, with a clear style that plays to the strengths of the team in the best Mourinho resemblance of yesteryears, may help in bridging the gap between themselves and the early pacesetters. It is too early to write off United, and whilst many may have already looked at past Mourinho third-season failings, a new approach would be welcome and could be his saving grace at a time when he needs the support of everyone associated with United more than ever.
The message is clear from a large contingent of the fans. It is time for the ‘new’ Mourinho to stand up and repay the faith.