Jose Mourinho has withstood considerable criticism of late, with some fans and pundits claiming that the same problems persist under the Portuguese as they have since the retirement of Sir Alex, that United have no discernible direction or style. These criticisms are understandable; this particular Manchester United squad appears as though it lacks any sense of identity. But what else could be expected? This group of players harbours issues from all three of Mourinho’s most recent predecessors, which to comprehend United’s current situation, must be considered.
Sir Alex Ferguson
A considerable proportion of today’s issues within this team lay in that the team appears to lack a deep-lying, creative influence. This is the case today, and it was most certainly the case towards the conclusion of Ferguson’s tenure. Following the retirement of Paul Scholes, the role of conductor in chief was very much up for grabs, which led to the Scot placing his trust in the talents of Tom Cleverley and Anderson. As the reality seemed to dawn on Sir Alex, midway through the 11/12 season, that this was not the long-term solution he had so hoped, action was taken to fill the Scholes shaped hole in United’s midfield – in the form of experimentation with Wayne Rooney.
As it quickly became apparent that the England talisman failed to offer a solution, Sir Alex made a decision which would heighten the difficulty of United’s next manager incomprehensively; Fergie goaded Paul Scholes out of retirement. Consequently, United would go another summer without welcoming a new central midfielder to the club and would therefore, despite offering arguably the best short term solution, mean that as Ferguson left and took the Scholes with him – the gaping hole in United’s midfield would burst open again.
David Moyes’ influence on that squad is an issue which Mourinho certainly has to deal with today. Despite failing to make any drastic change in personnel during his brief stint in the Old Trafford dugout, the current Sunderland boss changed the mentality of his team. Rather than add to Manchester United’s depleted squad, ‘The Chosen One’ stripped the club of the very thing that enabled Ferguson’s last team to conquer English football for the twentieth time, the fear factor. Ex pros often speak of how they were defeated in the tunnel at Old Trafford, while ex United players proudly proclaim how they felt ten feet tall when sporting the famous red shirt.
Combine these two mental states and there is an overwhelming outcome, success for Manchester United. However, this was lost under Moyes’ tutelage. Having been comprehensively and comfortably beaten by City, all that was necessary to give teams visiting Old Trafford new-found hope was a slip up to West Brom, which would prove to be the catalyst to a series on uncharacteristic home results. This is a consequence of the Scot’s reign which to this day has not been rectified and an issue which is very much on the proverbial plate of Jose Mourinho.
Louis van Gaal
Potentially the most damaging influence on today’s squad is that of Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman took Moyes’ depleted, mentally wounded squad and culled it to the bare bones, by way of his own will in addition to circumstance. An entire back four’s worth of title-winning experience and character was lost with the departures of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Rafael. Yet it isn’t this fact for which the Iron Tulip has to answer, it was the replacement strategy which followed. This title-winning back four was replaced with Matteo Darmian, Marcus Rojo, Daley Blind and Luke Shaw. With the exception of Luke Shaw, these players can all be seen as what the former Barca boss used to refer to as ‘multifunctional players’, with none of whom particularly specialising in a position. What is left, is a defence lacking individuals who know their roles, devoid of leadership. Luke Shaw remains the exception as a potentially world class signing, but still a teenager, who was there to guide him?
The turgid style on display often masked the defensive frailty of this team, but that frailty was certainly there, as much is clear to see in Mourinho’s United as holes begin to appear when the team looks to adopt a more expansive style. Although this lack of appropriate recruitment was not exclusive to the defence; despite the signings of Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ander Herrera, the issue of a long-term solution to United’s midfield conundrum was not addressed. Regardless of the undoubted quality of all three of the aforementioned players, none are the mould of player to dominate a midfield. While arguably the most creative player in world football, in Angel Di Maria, was not replaced in any form – leaving Juan Mata as the club’s sole out-and-out creative source. As for the final third, following the departure of Robin van Persie, the mantle of being responsible for goalscoring at the largest club on the planet fell on the shoulders of a teenager and a twenty year old. The Louis van Gaal purge could have been a wise move, were the Dutchman to have remained at the club for a longer period, but the reality was that this was never in the plan.
Fast forward to the appointment of Jose Mourinho and what awaited former Madrid boss was a club which had failed to address the issues apparent under the leadership of Sir Alex, with the addition of issued presented by the two managers sandwiched in between. So, is the current wave of criticism aimed at Mourinho justified? To an extent yes, in the sense that Manchester United should be held to the high standards it has set itself, thus some of the results of late should not be accepted. What is difficult to justify is the criticism of the job Mourinho is doing with this team. The Portuguese has done more to rectify the issues within this squad in four months than his predecessors had done in three years. A specialist centre back has been signed. In Paul Pogba, steps have finally been taken to build a dominating midfield.
Arguably the best creative talent of last season has been signed. A world-renowned superstar has been acquired to take the mantle of goalscoring off young shoulders. Above all else, character has been added to the squad, the performances are returning – and with it – the fear factor building. For the first time since 2013, teams have come to Old Trafford with the sole purpose of scrapping for a draw. The way Burnley fans could be seen celebrating their recent 0-0 as if it were a Premier League title shows just how fear is returning. A result at Old Trafford is again becoming a rare scalp for lesser teams. The performances are there; the results will come; Manchester United will return to the top of the tree. Mourinho has made all the right moves, picked up the pieces, all that is needed is patience for them to fall into place.
By Jonathan Murphy