This Week on Sir Matt Busby Way…
Settle yourself in for the omnibus episode of Life at Old Trafford, the soap opera where tensions are palpable, in-housing fighting is rife, and the drama never seems to end. Unless you’d prefer a version of events that hasn’t been so blown out of proportion that Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba are in danger of becoming joint-favourites for the Best Male Lead BAFTA, in which case you can read on.
We all know that Manchester United is a hot topic, wherever you are in the world. Unfortunately, though, Manchester United in perceived crisis is an even hotter topic, and boy does the football world have reserves of fuel to pour on any fire at Old Trafford at the moment.
After the much-publicised disaster of a pre-season tour of the USA, almost everyone without an allegiance to United, and worryingly, plenty with, are waiting for everything to blow up. The projected storyline is well told, we’ve seen it in a few other productions in the Mourinho Universe. Chelsea, Real Madrid and Chelsea: The Sequel all had extended unhappy periods or endings as the main protagonist lost his cool with his supporting cast. So desperate are the media and wider football circle for a repeat occurrence, anything that most clubs would regard as a mere blip is elevated to full-blown crisis when it concerns Mourinho and Manchester United.
To be fair, the manager has brought a lot of this attention on himself with his statements of discontent over the summer, as if life in the hot seat at this club didn’t already garner significant pressure. Paul Pogba’s post-Leicester comments did nothing to squash rumours of unrest between the two either, so the approach the club and Mourinho took last week to attempt to put the situation to bed was a logical one. The exclusive interview the boss did with MUTV, in which he was asked about and spoke positively on the future and mood in the camp, did have the faint smell of PR damage control; the pre-match press conference ahead of the Brighton game also served to promote a positive atmosphere amongst everyone at the club with Mourinho refusing to be dragged in a negative direction.
It gave the fans what they wanted to hear. There’s no issue between the manager and the star player, the team has started the season with a win and the majority of the squad were back in training, close to contention for match day returns. Things were looking up after a particularly rocky period after the World Cup – the non-arrival of new players no longer seemed like the end of the world either. Mourinho even made moves to downplay the disappointment, stating that it was only a matter of failing to sign one player, no big deal. The trouble is, by the time Sunday evening rolled around, it did seem like that failure was indeed a big deal again.
There’s no two ways about it, United’s trip to the Amex Stadium was a monumental shit-show in terms of performance. What it shouldn’t be, though, is the trigger for a total meltdown which is how it was largely portrayed. We’ve seen these types of result occur many times over the years, regardless of who is charge. In fact, every club has them, believe it or not. But because of the media-hyped, Coronation Street-style drama that has surrounded the club for the last few months it seemed much worse than it actually was in the grand scheme of things.
Add in the fact that Manchester City had just pummelled Huddersfield, Tottenham won well and Liverpool went on to a decent away win the day after, and it only serves to highlight United’s misgivings. If you believe much of what you can read, we shouldn’t let the fact that there is still 36 games to go in this season distract us, United’s season is doomed.
Doomed, despite the centre-back duo having only played together a handful of times and having individually shown enough potential for fans to be crying for them to be allowed to form a partnership. Doomed, despite the midfield trio only playing together twice and in all honesty, unlikely to be the first choice combination going forwards. Doomed, despite Mourinho warning us that the squad would find the first few weeks of the season difficult, almost as if he has a good grasp of managing groups of top-flight players for the last 15 years.
Obviously, the defensive errors against Brighton were hard to watch. Eric Bailly looked to like he was using a pair of legs that he was unfamiliar with and some of Victor Lindelof’s positional play left a lot to be desired, but for the last two seasons many have been hailing Bailly as the best United defender in years. How does one game, where his head clearly went, change that entirely to the point that he’s a flop? We’ve also seen Lindelof have a very solid World Cup in a difficult group and Mourinho has been full of praise for him lately. Sure, they had a shocker at the weekend, but that can’t be enough to scrap the idea of pairing them up going forward and cause everyone to be clamouring for new centre-backs until the January window? Partnerships take time to develop. There will be rocky periods whilst they learn each other’s games but lets not pretend they’re complete flops on the basis of ninety minutes. The trouble is there’s no place to hide at the centre of Manchester United’s defence and we’re constantly harking back to the glory years of solid defensive duos that, by the way, will have taken time to develop themselves.
Plus, if Mourinho goes back on putting his faith in Bailly and Lindelof, he’s only solidifying the cases against him that accuse him of poor signings in his tenure. He needs the pair to come good for him, even if there was an obvious improvement to be had by adding an experienced, top quality centre-back like Toby Alderweireld (we have to go back to full name terms now after weeks of ‘Toby’) to the ranks. There is a feeling that the capture of Alderweireld, or Harry Maguire, would’ve led to a switch to three at the back and that not signing either has forced Mourinho to re-think his plans this term. Either way, we’re not going to hear the end of that story until United put a run of wins together, which they’ve got time to do as there’s still 92% of the league season left to go.
Irregardless of whether the runs of wins materialises, we’re also not going to hear the end of the Zinedine Zidane rumours at any negative juncture unless the Frenchman takes another job any time soon. After all, the usually very reliable source of ‘people close to Zidane’ are claiming he wants the job and is expecting to be offered it. I’m not sure, but Zidane doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy to mingle with gossips that run to the Daily Mail after their conversations, but what do I know? And that is most of the issue – no one really knows anything that is going on at the club. It’s all just speculation borne out of ambiguous quotes and sideshows.
We’ve seen Mino Raiola, Paul Pogba’s agent, adding further fuel to the flames by tweeting jibes at Paul Scholes over criticism of his client. Whilst his comments appear to be largely throwaway insults to Scholes’ intelligence, they definitely served to bring more unwanted attention on the club, Pogba’s future and relations between big figures at Old Trafford. Raiola piping up just brings more embarrassment that adds to the narrative of the club falling apart on the back of one insipid performance. It helps to cause further outrage about whether Pogba is committed to the club (the tweets included comments about Raiola not struggling to find a buyer for his client) and whether one of him or Mourinho HAS to go. It also highlights how many of the figures involved in or around the club have United’s on-field success placed very low on their list of priorities.
Raiola couldn’t give a shit if Manchester United are winning things. He only cares that Paul Pogba is successful and therefore making him money – whether he does that at United or not is not a concern for him. That stance is one that echoes that of the actual owners of the club, and likely that of Ed Woodward. Is the club making money? Yes it is, so they’re happy. If the footballing aspect of the club, you know, the reason it exists, has what the board perceive to be enough to continue getting into the Champions League and remain on amongst the elite, it is unlikely to make any moves that don’t benefit the club commercially or financially.
In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the appointment of Mourinho in the first place is a product of that necessity. He gets results at all costs and, in terms of what the owners will have expected from him, he’s providing exactly what they desire. They’ve got Champions League qualification and the ability to attract high profile, commercially viable players – anything else is just a bonus, and with that the so-called traditions of the club are quickly becoming a thing of the past. They have been so more and more since Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill left the club five years. That all sounds pretty cynical, right?
Well, there is one thing we can cling to. Mourinho will not want to leave Manchester United without delivering a major title, it damages his already waning reputation if he does. We’ve seen (possibly unsubstantiated) reports that he has said he would’ve walked away from any other club over the way he was undermined in the transfer window – if true, that should be music to our ears that he chose not to. Whether he wants to win for us or himself is beside the point, we knew what we were getting before he arrived. The trouble is that it feels like a distant dream at the moment and will continue do so if we keep buying into having to pick sides between him and Pogba, if we keep thinking the grass would be greener with another man in charge. A fourth manager in six season means yet another re-build and we’re already title-less in five years – we got Mourinho in to win in the short term and in fairness to him, he’s come closer to doing so than any of the Post-Fergie lot whilst actually putting a young squad together that could go on to be successful after his time.
We don’t want to be in this position in another five years, experiencing a Liverpool-esque baron spell and flying banners over the stadium every five minutes like Arsenal. We’re already showing signs of that happening so it’s clear what needs to change at the club aside from the structure below Ed Woodward. It has always been us versus them at Old Trafford but the last five years have had an entirely predictable effect and allowed the fanbase to become as divided as it has ever been. The press and media have done enough to do a reasonable divide and conquer job on Manchester United – what we need to do is cease buying into the drama and stop thinking the grass is greener on the other side. Granted, all is definitely not rosy at the minute, but the intense overreactions aren’t helping anybody.