It wasn’t meant to be like this. The appointment of Jose Mourinho was meant to see Manchester United make a speedy recovery from its 3-year slump to challenge for the title and, at the very least, qualify comfortably for the Champions League. Things haven’t quite gone as planned.
It is fair to say that had the powers that be foreseen that the Portuguese would not be bringing him a magic wand that was capable of reversing the reds fortunes, they might have plumped for the less costly and more manageable option of Ryan Giggs to fill the void created by his mentor’s retirement.
However, though the chances of a league title are practically gone and a top four place looks equally unachievable, the season could still end on a successful note. For that to happen, however, Jose Mourinho must do the following:
Turn all attentions to Europe
The main target for the Portuguese tactician on getting the Old Trafford job was to qualify for the Champions League. As things stand, the route to the Champions League via the Premier League does not look a possibility. The current top four of Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal will most likely be the top four (in whatever order) come the end of the season.
Jose, however, can still deliver on the most precious of targets by winning the Europa League.
Europe’s less favoured competition offers Manchester United its best option back into the big time, especially as the competition has no teams the Reds should be fearful of. The likes of FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich will remain in Europe’s premier competition and while there are no ‘easy’ games in football, the challenges lying between United and a European victory is not immense.
Pull a Europa league victory off and even a seventh place finish would be written off as irrelevant.
System vs Players
The biggest obstacle, however, to a season-saving Europa league victory is Jose Mourinho’s inability to settle on a system or on a clientele.
Many have suggested that the blame for United’s inability to kill off games lies squarely with the players; this is not necessarily true. The managers’ tendency to consistently change his attacking line-up and the system they play in means that players have not had time to build up a sufficient understanding of each other’s games.
There is not enough rapport amongst the front players because they have hardly played together and in a particular system for long enough to build up one.
Hence, it’s the end of November and United’s best line up is unknown to everyone including their manager.
Part of the problem is that at the start of the season, Mourinho had in his mind a preferred starting attacking quartet comprising of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney central and Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard out wide. As the season has gone on he has found flaws in this set up but has been unable to settle on an alternative partly down to his determination to keep Ibrahimovic in the team and Rooney involved to some extent. It is important Jose resolves this in his mind once and for all.
The manager needs to either find a system that accommodates his best players or choose a system and pick the players who are best equipped to make it work, even if it means leaving out some big names. It will be a tough call either way but this is why he gets paid the big bucks.
Once he decides which route he wants to go down, he must stick to it.
Now that the Europa League takes priority, Jose can afford to use the league games to build up an understanding between the players and an understanding of the system he is trying to execute so that by the time the knock out stages come along, the team is in good shape and form to take it on
While many of the pro-Mourinho crowd flood social media and other channels crying for patience for the manager given the poor results of the league campaign, it is perhaps the manager who needs to be patient. The manager has been consistent in giving up on players after one or two poor games. A prime example is Anthony Martial. United’s leading goal scorer from last season and undoubtedly one of the biggest talents within the squad has had a shaky start to the season. However, when you consider that the French striker had no pre-season, is only 20 years old and has been in and out of the starting line up; it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that he is struggling to hit the heights of the previous campaign.
At the start of last season, Harry Kane of Tottenham had a similar faltering start but in his case, his manager Mauricio Pochettino, kept on playing him until he recovered his form and led Tottenham to a top four finish.
While Jose has persisted with Ibrahimovic, all the other players have been in and out of the team and tried out in different positions.
It is no surprise that Antonio Valencia has thrived having played in one position consistently and he looks a world beater when played in tandem with Juan Mata and Ander Herrera on the right side of Manchester United’s attack as the trio have built up an understanding of playing with each other. Same applies to Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba whose performances have improved as they have been paired together regularly for some time and have therefore been able to develop some chemistry.
The manager needs to apply the same patience he has shown to Ibrahimovic to his other big talents. He needs to learn to trust them, no matter how young or inconsistent they may be.
Stop getting banned
While the FA's decision to charge Jose Mourinho following his latest touch line outburst is laughable, the manager needs to pass some more positive vibes unto the pitch.
His predecessor Louis van Gaal was maligned for showing no passion and constantly being sat on the bench writing his autobiography. In Mourinho’s case, he channels his passion in the wrong way.
Sir Alex Ferguson did not shy away from touchline theatrics but most of it was done with the aim of riling up his players to fight harder and be more determined to win the game in question as the legendary Scot often manufactured anger or a sense of injustice to give his players an extra dose of adrenaline to compete better and fight harder. It was also aimed at stirring up the crowd and making Old Trafford as intimidating as it could be both for the opposition and the referee.
Mourinho’s outbursts, however, show self-frustration and a sense of ‘nothing is going our way’. That kind of message does not inspire or rile instead it brings a sense of fear and frustration to the players a mental block that says; ‘it’s not going to go our way again today.’
A calmer Mourinho on the touchline would transmit confidence to the team that their manager is watching and he is staying calm because he likes what he is seeing and believes a goal will come sooner rather than later. A Mourinho that is barking instructions to the team on the touchline or waving an accusing finger at the referee and forth official will also have a better impact on the team’s mental state than a frustrated looking manager being sent to the stands.
And finally hope
If all else fails, then United fans can always fall back to the hope that Liverpool will fall at the last huddle and fail to win the league yet again before fading away next season into irrelevance. That all things considered may still be considered a good season by some United fans especially if the team played a role in making it happen.
What, perhaps, is evident from such a statement is that it used to be the Liverpool fans harbouring this kind of bitterness, how things have changed.