It’s tempting to read too much into pre-season games. The first glimpse of the team for a couple of months and we all naturally make far-reaching judgements, particularly when the results are bad. They are, though, little more than practice or warm-up games, more focused on improving fitness and sharpness, than securing a result. Many seasons, United have excelled in the pre-season fixtures only to stumble in the first few games of the season. Conversely, they have performed badly in the summer matches, only to hit the ground running when the Premiership starts.
That being said, pre-season does provide some insight. Partly to get a first look at new signings, such as Fred, but also to assess the prospects of the fringe players to stake a claim for a first-team place. In that respect, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Andreas Pereira have stood out, and deserved to be included in the first-team squad against Leicester next week. More tellingly, although the results are irrelevant, the nature of the performance, and coherence as a team, does give an indication of how ready the team is for the start of the season.
United are 7/1 to win the first four games of the Premier League season.
With that in mind, and considering United’s fairly dire displays so far, epitomised by the 4-1 defeat to Liverpool, it’s a sobering thought that the first match of the season is just over a week away. The team looks disjointed and uninspired, and with several players still not back from the summer break, and with injuries mounting up, Mourinho has a lot to do to ensure United start the season well.
And that’s where the problem lies. All clubs face difficulties with the availability of players, niggling injuries, and unsettling transfer speculation at this time of year. It then falls to the manager to unite the squad, to resolve the issues, and draw the most out of the players he has available. He needs to motivate and inspire the players, sharpen their focus, and promote confidence.
Except, Mourinho has done the opposite of all that. From his first press conference to now, he has been a downtrodden, miserable character, perhaps even more than he did at various times last season. He projects a disconcerting mixture of despair and disappointment. He seems unable to rouse himself from this melancholy: instead of highlighting the positives, and inspiring the players, he is a hub of negativity, a cloud when we need a silver lining.
He is clearly unhappy with Ed Woodward and the board for the lack of signings, and to that extend his mood is understandable. Some of it may even be for their benefit. He clearly hasn’t had the backing he wants this summer, although his preference for spending fortunes on players approaching 30 is never likely to win over a board who primarily keep an eye on the bank balance. The way United penny-pinch is frustrating, but it feels like the club are having doubts about how much they actually back the manager, and trust his judgement in the transfer market.
Alexis Sanchez is 7/1 to score a hat-trick within the first 5 games of the season.
But Mourinho has to find a way past it. He has had 5 transfer windows now and still likes to claim this isn’t his squad. He continues to publicly criticise individual players – Martial being the latest target of his contempt – while continually tossing in comments about certain players, doubting their commitment or quality. The remark he made about how Sanchez must be unhappy with the players he’s having to play with was staggering. Is it any wonder some players may not feel motivated?
Mourinho needs to regain his own focus. People will say pre-season does not matter. People will say what he says does not matter. His mood is irrelevant. But if a team mirrors its manager, it’s no wonder they look sluggish and ordinary. Mourinho’s manner and attitude may be different in the changing room and training pitch. It has to be hoped so, because based on the public persona he’s presenting, he looks like a man whose passion and desire is draining away. Hopefully the next week or so will deliver the singings he so desperately wants, and Mourinho can recapture his own fighting spirit. It’s going to be a long season if he doesn’t.