It may seem hyperbolic to claim that Jose Mourinho’s future as Manchester United’s manager was in doubt at 6.15 on Saturday evening, but after going two goals down to a Manchester City side who were carving United’s defence open at will, at the time it felt like a serious possibility. United were so inferior in the shadow of an under-strength City side, it seemed to be a damning confirmation Mourinho doesn’t possess the answers this United team desperately needs.
Until that second half. Suddenly United, inspired by Paul Pogba and the effervescent Alexis Sanchez, discovered the freedom and desire sorely lacking from the first 45 minutes, and produced an emphatic comeback, exhibiting the verve and confidence that has become increasingly rare this season. They certainly rode their luck during the match (Ashley Young in particular), but it was genuinely an excellent response, and a much-needed performance of promise and potential.
In many ways, it seems fitting that the match was the textbook definition of a game of two halves. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of United during the match perfectly encapsulated Mourinho’s tenure at Old Trafford, especially this season.
So often in the Premiership, United only manage to convince for half of the match. A good opening 45 minutes has often been followed by a listless second half. Similarly, when United have performed well in the latter part of a game, as they did on Saturday, it has regularly occurred as a response to a turgid first half display.
It should be remembered, though, that in terms of results over the course of the season, United have been impressively consistent, and look likely to break 80 league points for the first time in 5 years. Potentially, they could even end up on 89 points, a total that would secure the title in most seasons. Yet, despite that, within those matches, conviction and confidence seem to come and go with an irritating frequency.
Consequently, despite largely positive results, it’s the performances that have raised doubts about Mourinho. The crowd at Old Trafford demands more than hard-fought victories: it craves attacking flair and excitement. The famous cry of “attack attack attack” was a celebration of United’s style during Ferguson’s era: over the last five years, it’s become a desperate plea. That’s not to say Mourinho’s United have not excited at times; in fact, that’s what exacerbates the exasperation of his style. Fans have been afforded glimpses of what this side can be, how well they can perform. How much potential there is. They just don’t see it often enough.
The voices of dissent have grown louder as the season has progressed, as the performances have become more pedestrian and predictable. There isn’t, yet, a great clamour for Mourinho’s exit, but there are significant doubts about how far he can take this team. If his first season mostly convinced fans that he was the perfect man for the job, this campaign has predominantly raised questions.
The strongest defence of Mourinho has been how much he has improved the team. He took control of United after they had finished 6th in the league, and despite a merited FA Cup victory, generally were a team under Van Gaal had grown stale and uninspiring. Mourinho has improved the squad and made strong additions, notably Bailly, Lukaku, Pogba, Matic and Sanchez. Even though their form, fitness and impact maybe haven’t been as consistent as everyone hoped, it is generally agreed United have a much better, more talented group of players than two years ago.
Furthermore, with two trophies last season, and a significantly improved performance in the league this year, United have clearly progressed. And the pitiful losses against mid and lower table teams, which became increasingly common under both Moyes and Van Gaal, have largely been eradicated.
It’s in the bigger games that Mourinho fails to convince. Faced with a strong opponent, United become defensive and timid, Mourinho setting the team up to combat the opposition’s strengths, rather than imposing their own. Pragmatic is the term regularly attributed to Mourinho as a coach in these matches, but fearful seems a more fitting title. Too slow, too worried about pushing players forward, too committed to avoiding defeat, rather than securing victory. The Champions League home fixture against Seville was the pinnacle. In a home match against a mediocre side that United had to win, Mourinho set the team up with two holding midfielders, and United subsequently produced one of the most insipid displays in recent memory. His casual dismissal after the match of United’s failure hardly helped his cause.
It makes you wonder what he’s so afraid of. Armed with a strong squad, and substantial funds, and his own assessment of himself of one of the world’s best coaches, why does he think other teams are so much better than his that he has to defend at all costs? And if they are better, then he should, as a coach, make his team better than the opposition. He has the ability and the resources to do it, but his overly-cautious nature holds him back. He seems to reserve his arrogance and self-confidence for the press conferences, when he would be better served infusing it into his team.
The question, then, should not be how much Mourinho has improved United. His team face a very particular challenge right now. The adulation of Guardiola’s City may be over the top, but they have become a formidable force, and United clearly face an enormous task to prevent the next few years turning sky blue. It’s no longer enough for United to show progress, or even to be good: they have to be great. The only question now is whether Mourinho is capable of elevating this team to new heights. Next season may be his last chance to prove it.