To try and claim that Manchester United’s start to life under Jose Mourinho has been anything more than poor is optimistic. After seventeen matches, Mourinho’s men have earned the equivalent of just 30 points, sitting in eighth place in the Premier League and third in the Europa League group stages. United needs to be successful in one of those competitions to achieve the absolute minimum goal of Champions League qualification. While Mourinho’s men are showing the signs of improvement, results must change, or there will be a price to pay later in the season.
Many fans are blaming Jose Mourinho for United’s problems because he has been hired to sort the issues that have plagued the side since Sir Alex Ferguson departed. While he hasn’t done that yet, he has made some good decisions, showed intent and motivation and learned lessons that previous managers didn’t. That being said, he has made (and is making) mistakes, and the problem is that the margins of error are much thinner than they were last year, when United went winless for over a month and still only lost Champions League football on goal difference.
The biggest mistake Mourinho has made is failing to clear out the squad. I was delighted with United’s business over the summer, in terms of players coming in. Now, United has a group of players who are hindering the system, and they are on the pitch too often. The likes of Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney make United stagnant whenever they play in midfield, and when Rooney is up front, Marcus Rashford can only find games out wide. Phil Jones has been a liability without playing a single minute of football, because now United has two very left-footed defenders in the side. Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young, Anthony Martial and Memphis are the only natural wingers in the squad, and three aren’t up to scratch when it comes to starting matches.
Mourinho didn’t give Henrikh Mkhitaryan a chance to play in the side when the rest of the team was gaining fitness, and now he is clearly struggling for it. Perhaps he could play narrowly and interchange with Juan Mata, in similar fashion to Lingard, but Mourinho still doesn’t seem to know how to use his best players in the same side, nor does he have backup options of enough quality. Much like last season, the inclusion of Rooney in the squad before his disappointment has left the side very thin.
In addition, Mourinho is failing to rotate the squad. United is yet to win a Premier League match on the weekend after Europa League football. Against Fenerbahce, the same back four and Marcus Rashford kept their places in the side, failing to give other players a chance to impress. Paul Pogba, who didn’t need to play the game with Mkhitaryan raring for a chance in the centre of the pitch, was deployed and sustained an injury.
With United’s first team not performing efficiently, the players who could step up and earn their places are not being given the chances. Those who are rotated into the side, Rooney and Fellaini the only ones added with regularity, are blocking opportunities that could be given to the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin (who is experiencing similar problems to Mkhitaryan).
In addition, one thing Louis van Gaal did very well was allocating the squad in order to give opportunities to youth. Mourinho has not done the same, and when presented with opportunities to do so, he has not. No player from the U23’s has debuted this season, competitively. This not only hurts the long-term vision but also hinders the incentive for the youth reserves to perform and develop, considering all the promising ones from last season are now out on loan. Youth players got van Gaal out of jail a few times last season, and with Mourinho’s apparent reluctance to use them, there could be problems.
All that being said, there are no excuses for the way United’s playing staff has performed in the given circumstances. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is carried on the pitch with the hope that he’ll finish chances, and he has not done that. Chris Smalling, United’s main captain as Rooney sits out, has been poor at best.
Those are the greatest examples, but even overall, only eight players have met the expectations of a United player this season (David de Gea, Antonio Valencia, Eric Bailly, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, Michael Carrick), and while some others have excuses, nobody has stepped up. Excuses do not win a Premier League. When United won the treble in 1999, players were there to step up and fill the vacancies in the Champions League final, without Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. The same personalities and performances are currently not present at United at all, and the players who could emerge as those personalities are not being given the necessary opportunities.
To conclude, Mourinho is not doing the best job he can at United, but no manager can perform well if the players aren’t doing their best either. Pep Guardiola is a great example, because now, regardless of all the praise, he is struggling to have the same domination at Manchester City that he had at his other clubs. A man is limited by what he has at his disposal, and Mourinho’s staff at Manchester United has not performed so far.
Louis van Gaal and David Moyes had deficiencies and were much worse, but the players were also not present when they were at the helm, which is shown by the drop-off in performances post-Ferguson. This is an adjustment that has to be made, and will take time, but as players find their feet, the situation will only get better at United. This is a club for the vision, a club that sees beyond a season, which is a concept we have forgotten of late.