The Season So Far
It’s José Mourinho’s third season in charge of Manchester United and so far it’s gone exactly as his Third Season curse obliges us to expect: The
Special Happy Miserable One has seen results go up in smoke and is now openly waging war on his own boss, publicly bickering with his star player and arguing with the press in such a belligerent, unhinged manner that neutral observers feel equal parts disgust and pity. What did we expect?
It says it all that Man Utd’s best football this season arguably came in a crushing 3-0 home defeat. That result at home to Spurs at least came with the caveat that United had looked threatening at times, but the embarrassing and well-deserved defeats away to Brighton and West Ham, along with a home elimination from the Carabao Cup against Frank Lampard’s Derby side, have seen the Red Devils produce truly hellish football, and after a summer of vitriol and misery from Mourinho, it was those performances and results which left him staring down the barrel once again.
Indeed, with half an hour of Manchester United’s last league match played it seemed all-but-certain that Mourinho would be sacked immediately after the final whistle. Pre-match rumours of a post-game exit were followed up by a disastrous opening spell which saw goal-shy Newcastle make mincemeat out of United, racing into a 2-0 lead in front of a stunned Old Trafford crowd. Against all odds, a classic United second-half onslaught complete with stoppage time winner saw Mourinho’s men turn it around and keep José in a job - but for how much longer?
While it may appear that Manchester United’s season has been all about José Mourinho, that’s not entirely true. Nor would it be accurate to say he’s the only problem at the club. Ignoring the colossal clusterf**k in the boardroom and focusing on the players, there are so many awesome talents at the club who simply haven’t produced the goods on anything like a regular enough basis.
Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Juan Mata have been good in spells but wretched in others; both Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial obviously need minutes, but neither convinces enough to merit them; Alexis Sánchez has been downright disastrous since arriving from Arsenal, placing him alongside the likes of Victor Lindelöf, Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo as unequivocally bad buys United simply can’t shift. Luke Shaw looks much improved, but that’s about it.
The Season Ahead
First and foremost, Manchester United have to start winning games. The prospect of a title challenge was never a likely one, with Mourinho spending most of his summer briefing the press about how much he hates Ed Woodward, as well as criticising his players for a lack of quality/application/fight/whatever. Manchester City and Liverpool are miles ahead, while few will be surprised if Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea use this occasion to show that they too have put daylight between the two sides.
Just when Mourinho was supposed to have United mounting a serious title push, they have been reduced to fighting for fourth with Tottenham and Arsenal. With Zinedine Zidane waiting in the wings, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that a managerial change is coming at Old Trafford, and sooner rather than later. Then, when all the bitching and moaning and in-fighting has stopped, we might see what United are really made of.
We all know José Mourinho is going to park the bus. We just don’t know whether it’ll be with a 4-3-3, a 4-4-1-1, a 5-4-1 or even a 6-3-1. Regardless of the shape, we all know what the general strategy will be and which patterns of play we’ll see. Expect social media to explode as Paul Pogba is benched so that Marouane Fellaini can do a man-marking job on Jorginho while simultaneously acting as Man United’s out-ball.
For most other sides, United’s strengths would be considerable.
In attack, only five Premier League teams have taken more shots this season, while only Manchester City have had more shots on target, and only five teams have a higher Expected Goals figure. In defence, only four teams have allowed fewer shots on their goal and only three teams spend less time in their own half. By most measures United appear to be having a fairly productive and dominant campaign.
However, this is not a normal club. This is the most heavily marketed club in the world, with the third most expensive squad in existence. The fans, the media and everyone else on Earth expects much more.
Where to start?
There’s little to no cohesion in Manchester United’s football. There’s no obvious style of play or gameplan or spirit, which makes a mockery of the idea of Mourinho as a master tactician and a genius motivator. Not a single player seems sure of their role or how they fit in with their teammates, and this is at least partly because only David De Gea and Romelu Lukaku are afforded the minutes they need to actually put a run of form together. Every player knows they’re 20 bad minutes away from being substituted, publicly shamed and dropped, and no-one is enjoying playing football.
As most of the goals United have conceded this season have shown, they’re far too easy to play against — often wide open down the middle, with only the badly out-of-form De Gea likely to offer any resistance. The stats bear this out: only three teams have made fewer tackles this season, while only two have made fewer interceptions. Only three teams have blocked fewer shots and only two have allowed a greater percentage of shots against in their own six-yard box. Bournemouth, Leicester and Wolves have better Expected Goals Against figures.
In short, it’s Mourinho’s third season and everyone’s sick of their lives. Let it end.
United are sweating on the fitness of Nemanja Matić, Luke Shaw and Marouane Fellaini. With Ander Herrera out and Scott McTominay also doubtful, United could have something of a defensive midfielder crisis ahead of one of their most important bus-parking assignments of the season.
Chelsea should line up as Chelsea do.
Eden Hazard 2-0 Man Utd.