Christmas is approaching and, by now, we know it needs a miracle for Manchester United to finish top four in the Premier League. Another season out of the Champions League looms and it begs the question: is the team progressing under Jose Mourinho? Ask the self-styled ‘special one’ and he will jeer your football wisdom like he sarcastically questioned the football knowledge of a Manchester Evening News reporter last Sunday. The reporter’s query to the United boss sounded perfectly logical. A manager becomes answerable when his team suffers for a dud substitution. So Mourinho was rightly asked about replacing Henrikh Mkhitaryan with Marouane Fellaini against Everton at Goodison Park.
After watching the Belgian for three years, almost every United fan knows he is mediocrity personified. Mourinho, however, had his logic in bringing on Fellaini. His team was leading 1-0 and he wanted to negate Everton’s aerial threat. Never mind that the big man’s clumsy trip to Idrissa Gueye on 87 minutes awarded Everton a penalty and a point. So it was a fair question to ask: why Fellaini? Mourinho’s retort hinted at disrespect. “What do you mean by that? I thought you would know more about football than you do because the answer is obvious.
“Everton is not the passing team any more like they were. Everton is a team that plays direct, everything is direct, goalkeeper direct, Ashley Williams direct, Funes Mori direct… everything is direct. “And when a team is losing and plays direct, intensifies the direct football, and when you have a player on the bench with 2m (height), you play the player in front of the defensive line to help the team to the match,” he said.
Of course, the MEN reporter knows his football, which is why he covers it. He doesn’t need Mourinho’s certificate to ply his trade. The scribe, in fact, should be appreciated for showing dignity and not asking the Portuguese about the number of sackings—the pattern is every third season—he suffered. He also didn’t ask why United were only on 21 points from 14 matches, 13 points shy of League leaders Chelsea and nine points off Manchester City at the fourth place despite spending £160 million during close season? Paul Pogba alone accounted for £89 million. But United, so far, have won only five matches, drew six and lost three. Unlike Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, they never looked a team capable of pushing for the title.
Yes, some progress has been made under the new manager. United no longer play sterile, sideways football that defined Louis van Gaal’s regime. They now go forward and take aim at the opposition goal. But, so far, they have scored only 19 goals from 230 shots. It makes the conversion rate 8.26%. Mourinho’s affinity towards big names is a reason.
Anthony Martial had been one of the shining lights for United last term. Mourinho has made him peripheral. The 21-year-old Frenchman, so far, has featured in only six Premier League matches—three as a substitute—this season. Marcus Rashford, too, appears to be regressing, playing out of position. Contrary to United’s traditions, Mourinho has pinned his faith in a spent force.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic might be scoring goals in almost every game, but at 35 years of age, he no longer has the legs to cope with the hurly-burly of English football. His poor conversion rate—shots per goal ratio of over eight—is down to his slow movement near and inside the penalty area. Compare him with Chelsea’s Diego Costa who has scored 11 goals from 14 appearances with a conversion rate of 74%. United lack the cutting edge because they don’t have a centre-forward of Costa’s calibre.
Michael Carrick is also 35, but he remains gold standard. But unlike Ibrahimovic, the Englishman, surprisingly, doesn’t have Mourinho’s confidence and the team is suffering the consequences. United look a different side with their most accomplished midfielder playing.
Mourinho had lost the Chelsea dressing room last term because he frequently laid into his players in public. A scathing attack on Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw before the game at Swansea suggested that he didn’t learn from his mistakes. Both players were rightly upset. Public criticism is not the United culture. Sir Alex Ferguson had his share of run-ins with his players and media. But he always maintained a certain amount of decency. He never booted a water bottle down the touchline as a mark of protest against a refereeing decision.
Mourinho is said to have impressed the board by restoring United’s traditional brand of attacking football. The manager himself claims his team had been unlucky. “I’m pleased my team is playing well. It’s a problem that our position in the table is not a reflection of our performances,” he said recently. To be fair, he is not way off the mark. United have been on the receiving end of some very poor refereeing calls, including at least four-five denied penalties. Woodwork prevented their efforts many times. Still, Mourinho, in his pomp, would have never given such excuses. And it begs another question: is he past his sell-by date as a top-flight manager? The game is evolving continuously. From his player recruitments to substitutions, the 53-year-old seems to be falling by the wayside in comparison with a younger, smarter group of super managers led by Pep Guardiola and closely followed by Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino. David Moyes and van Gaal had been fired by United for failing to secure Champions League football. Will Ed Woodward, the club’s executive vice-chairman, be patient with Mourinho? He should be, for a proven manager deserves at least two transfer windows at the new club to execute his plans properly. Also, United just can’t afford a third managerial sacking in four years. At the same time, though, Mourinho needs to buy a proven goal-scorer in January to be safe.
And who knows, the Europa League could be his saving grace. United are in the League Cup semi-finals alright, but it’s a piece of silverware that a club of their stature doesn’t covet. Winning Europa, however, will take them among the European elites next season. Little wonder then that Mourinho is snubbing youth even in a second-tier competition.