It was prior to Manchester United’s home FA Cup tie with Reading last season that Jose Mourinho uttered the words that have come back to bite him.
“I think when a goalkeeper is a player of the season, it’s because something is wrong”, he said.
Sixteen months on it was perhaps the knowledge that David De Gea was a certainty to pick up the award for the fourth time in five seasons that prompted the Portuguese to invent and present his own trophy for Manager’s Player of the Year to Scott McTominay, a choice of recipient that was as close as possible to the manager giving himself a gong. He cited the startling development enjoyed by the young Scottish international as he progressed from peripheral under-23 player to a national team debut in six months.
Coaches are often judged not just on results and aesthetic, but on the degree to which they have improved the players in their charge. Often the three are heavily intertwined. McTominay is the most obvious example of one who has come on under Mourinho, but thereafter in this United squad the pickings are slim. Romelu Lukaku has undoubtedly developed and was the only realistic challenger to De Gea. Jesse Lingard has also stepped up his contribution and numbers, but thereafter it is hard to identify another. Ander Herrera, perhaps, when fit and confident. Indeed, some are failing to even match their performance levels under Louis Van Gaal at United or, in the case of Mourinho’s own signings, their former clubs. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are shadows of the players who burst into our consciousnesses under the Dutchman and carried a distinctly average squad, along with the always exceptional Spanish goalkeeper.
In midfield Paul Pogba continues to frustrate and be frustrated, not even half the player he was at Juventus, and Nemanja Matic, so imperious in the opening months of the season, has struggled having been played relentlessly all campaign. The Serb, much like his teammates, sometimes moves the ball too laboriously, too conservatively. All must take the share of responsibility for their struggles, but when all of the club’s most technically gifted individuals are under-performing the issues run deeper. Mourinho’s best defender, Eric Bailly, is currently persona non-grata, with few buying the explanation that his manager is only picking those needing to be in form for the World Cup. Victor Lindelof has progressed from his woeful first few months at United, but is another who is in and out of the side.
Friday’s defeat at Brighton was a familiar capitulation against an average side after more promising results against the current inhabitants of the top six. If this were a one-off it could be dismissed as meaningless, but it has become habitual. Mourinho made a number of changes, some by choice and others enforced by injury. The performance was abject, all ten outfield starters stinking the AMEX Stadium up as the home side deservedly won. Post-match the manager questioned his players’ motivation levels and took aim at the usual scapegoats.
The players that replaced others did not perform at a good level and when individuals do that it is difficult for the team to play well. Maybe now you will not ask me why A, B and C do not play so much….. You have the answer now when you ask ‘why always Lukaku?’. We are probably not as good as people think we are individually.
The targets for this jibe were clear, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford above all taking the hit. Mourinho regularly refers to expected standards, and is quick to drop certain individuals after poor performances. Yet whilst he refers to players who are ‘not as good as people think we are individually’, others who regularly underperform face little consequence. Whilst the idea is propagated (and lapped up by some fans) that the likes of Martial and Rashford lack the correct ‘mentality’, the Portuguese recently gave a new contract to the distinctly average Marcos Rojo and is keen for Marouane Fellaini, so often inadequate, to follow suit. Chris Smalling, dreadful on the ball, plays every week regardless of form while Eric Bailly, United’s best centre back by a distance, is currently left out. We are left to believe that the likes of Martial and Rashford, as well as Paul Pogba, do not have the character to succeed despite having previously done so at a younger age in different high-pressure circumstances. It is a similar narrative to that which Mourinho propagated against several of his flair players at Chelsea as his second spell at the club unravelled. Prior to that Kevin De Bruyne was so aghast at his manager’s claims that he was not motivated in training that he asked for it to be videoed so the public could make up their own minds.
It has been a feature of United’s football this season that brief periods of excellence have been subsumed by tedious stodge. They have not looked motivated and sharp at the start of games all year, regardless of personnel. At Liverpool Jurgen Klopp has created a side that plays glorious, high-intensity football, maximising the impact of his own signings whilst improving those with more modest talent. A large proportion of his own purchases have been a success and to take them to a Champions League final given the talent at his disposal is a terrific achievement, particularly after the German was forced to sell the brilliant Coutinho in January. Whilst the Anfield side are a thrill a minute, adventurous and bold, United are a largely joyless bunch, reliant on moments of individual excellence to win games. Alexis Sanchez has struggled to adapt to his new environment and it is far from coincidence that this team has beaten the Premier League’s top six but lost at all three promoted sides from last season, failing to score in each, drawn at home to Southampton and lost to West Brom. When a team plays the low block, sitting deep and remaining compact, more is required than giving it to one of the better attackers and letting them do their thing. When space is at a premium United’s attack becomes painfully static and narrow.
The biggest problem that Mourinho has when calling out particular players is that the abject performances have come regardless of the players involved. Only five of those who started at Brighton also played in the home defeat to West Brom, or in the abysmal loss at Old Trafford against Sevilla. Friday’s match was the third time United have faced Chris Hughton’s side this season and the third time they have played desperately poorly. The directionless, slow-paced, one-dimensional, reactive football dominates regardless of who is on the pitch. Too often this team only lifts itself out of its tedium when behind. At the start of a managerial regime such inconsistency is understandable, but we are two years into Mourinho’s tenure and the Portuguese has had four transfer windows and circa £350m to buy players to suit his system. It is regularly opined that this team lacks leaders, and this may be true, but who is to blame if none have been acquired?
United may well win the FA Cup this season and four points will be enough to secure a distant second place in the Premier League. There has been an improvement in results from last season and Mourinho can reasonably cling on to that change in fortune, but what we have watched on the pitch for much of the season has not been fun or, on many occasions, remotely good enough. Some players are chastised and banished for a poor performance while others clearly not of the required standard are retained and, in some cases, offered new deals. The manager remains a sullen individual, his team cast in his image, and it is sad to see talented young players stall, short on confidence, as others kick on under more positive coaches. Some of the players at United are clearly not good enough and will rightly depart in the summer. Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind and co can have few complaints. Mourinho will buy replacements and in some cases they will be an upgrade on the current incumbent. Results may, to a degree, improve again. But reinforcements in one window are finite in number, particularly in a short transfer window in a World Cup summer, and much of this squad will remain. However, without a functioning system and in the absence of existing talents being developed and motivated the Premier League title is pie in the sky. One argument, which appeals to me, is that few managers could have got United from where they were to where they are now, whilst winning two (possibly three) trophies, as quickly as Mourinho, but the suspicion is that this may be as far or close to as far as we can go under Jose.
Perhaps he will prove his critics wrong – I truly hope that will be the case – and he will rightly get the time and investment to do so. But as a wise man once said, “when a goalkeeper is a player of the season, it’s because something is wrong”. It is hard to argue with that assessment.