There will be no shortage of questions asked or fingers pointed in the wake of Manchester United’s embarrassing 4-0 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
What was David de Gea doing for the first goal? How was Pedro allowed to run past Daley Blind and Chris Smalling unimpeded? Why wasn’t David Luiz shown a straight red card for his awful tackle on Marouane Fellaini? How were United so ineffective in attack?
You could go on asking questions until United returned to Stamford Bridge next season.
Mourinho made it clear at the start of the season that the club had brought in each of the players he asked for during the summer transfer window. He had this to say regarding the club’s final league positions since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure and his own ambitions for the season;
“I was always much more aggressive in my approach with the risks that can bring and it would be easy to focus on the last three years and say ‘Let’s work and try and be back in the Champions League’ but I prefer to be more aggressive and say we want to win.”
So he clearly believed he could mount a title challenge with the squad at his disposal.
Even at this early stage you’d have to be skeptical of that.
So what’s missing? Looking at the United squad on paper you’d be inclined to think not a lot. But comparing this squad/team to vintage Mourinho teams like the ones he had at Porto, Inter and his first time round at Chelsea there is one intangible quality lacking. Unity.
This United team looks like a group of individuals. Unless they’re playing a team that just rolls over for them, like Fenerbahce in midweek, it’s difficult to see any clear game plan. The ball gets passed across the pitch in front of the opposition’s back four often without a single player choosing to shoulder responsibility by taking a risk. Options for the man on the ball are generally behind him, any forward movement off the ball is usually provided by the enthusiasm of Marcus Rashford or Jesse Lingard.
In Mourinho’s most successful teams each and every player on the pitch was prepared to bust a gut running for their teammates, for their coach. In attacking positions players were obliged to take risks in order to create chances, if they lost the ball trying the team as a unit did it’s best to snuff out any danger. None of these characteristics are on show in the current United line-up.
There have been problems with leadership since Ferguson left. There was an exodus of senior pros, many of them leaders on the pitch. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra all left the club in a very short space of time leaving a massive leadership vacuum. In truth Wayne Rooney never displayed the kind of personality on the pitch that Manchester United need from their captain.
Mourinho isn’t to blame for these issues, they existed quite clearly long before he came to the club but he certainly hasn’t been able to arrest the trend.
It’s early doors yet, some results can be misleading, like the 1-1 draw against Stoke at Old Trafford where United could have scored four or five, but the performances against the better sides have been worrying. Against Manchester City in their first big test United were blown out of the water by the pace at which their city rivals moved the ball in the first half and they played a tactical, negative game against an under-performing Liverpool team to earn a point an Anfield.
The annihilation at Stamford Bridge speaks for itself.
Mourinho was famous for the dedication and loyalty he inspired in his players. His Porto side would impose his will on the pitch, their victory against Martin O’Neill’s Celtic in the UEFA cup final was the perfect example. Celtic battered them but they refused to crumble. Senior players at Chelsea like Didier Drogba, John Terry and Frank Lampard held him in such reverence that they openly spoke of how they would miss him upon his departure the first time around. Similarly with the players at Inter, there was that famous video clip of Mourinho consoling a sobbing Marco Materazzi as he left the club.
The ‘Special One’ never had the same unflinching loyalty at Real Madrid, in fact he went the opposite way, actually falling out with a number of the senior pros like Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos. He never managed to recapture it at Chelsea either. Has some aspect of his character changed? Who knows?
He needs players who can impose and police his law on the pitch. Like Ferguson had Roy Keane. Looking at the current squad it’s hard to see who can do that. Of his own signings Henrikh Mkhitaryan has failed to make any meaningful appearances, Paul Pogba lacks the discipline required, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is too old to even impose his own will and now promising young centre back Eric Bailly looks set for a stretch on the sidelines. The rest of the squad still seems hungover from the Louis van Gaal era.
If Mourinho can’t role back the years and pull this squad together, this could be a long hard year for United.