The recent first defeat of the season at Huddersfield Town, and particularly the manner of that defeat, seems to have raised some consternation amongst a section of the global Manchester United fan-base, which I have to say I find somewhat surprising (though in these days when a multitude of people who play popular computer simulation series “Football Manager” also having access to a ‘platform’ on the Internet, perhaps it’s little surprise that many of these ‘armchair managers’ truly believe they could do a better job of managing the Club than Jose Mourinho…).
So, perhaps now is a good time to have a look at some of the problems facing both the Club and the manager, consider how they have arisen, and what, if anything, can be done to address them.
I think United’s current issues fall into several ‘categories’, some more temporary in nature than others, as follows:
- Club Ownership;
- Player Injuries;
- Individual Player Attitude and Errors;
- Unrealistic Expectations.
Let’s look at these a little closer.
The Glazer family have owned United since summer 2005, when they staged a takeover with the tacit assistance of former majority shareholders John Magnier and J.P. McManus, who sold the Americans their 28.7% share of the Club. This takeover was rightly greeted with dismay and huge opposition from the vast majority of United fans, who worried about both the ‘motive’ behind the American buy-out (what did Americans with no known interest in football want with an English football club?) and that the huge level of debt the Americans had levered onto the Club through this takeover action would cripple its ability to compete financially with other clubs in the cut-throat world of the player transfer market.
Little did the fans know then that it wasn’t just going to be Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich at Chelsea whom they needed to worry about United competing with. Since then, cross-town rivals Manchester City have been taken over by Abu Dhabi oil baron Sheikh Mansour (effectively making City one of the richest clubs in the world almost ‘overnight’), and several other English & European clubs have also been brought under the control of some very wealthy people.
This factors into United’s current issues, as in my opinion, the Glazer family (and by extension, “their man” in the boardroom, Ed Woodward) have absolutely NO INTENTION of actually competing with the likes of Mansour, Abramovich or the wealthy owners of ‘newly monied’ big European clubs like Paris St. Germain when it comes to spending money to get the very top players available on the global market. They are only interested in using Manchester United as a ‘cash cow’, milking any operating profits back into their own financial empire, and their sanctioning of the Club spending money to acquire players very much has a limit that they will not stretch beyond. In my opinion that ‘limit’ is what they believe they, as a business, can recoup in merchandising and branding/image-right sales from ‘customers’ (i.e. you & I) and financial ‘partners’, no more, no less.
The recent purchase of Paul Pogba from Juventus for £89 million was viewed by the owners as an opportunity to ‘sell more shirts’ and make money from selling image rights. They viewed it as a ‘zero spend’ by them, in real terms. In effect, the Glazers are happy to sanction a big ‘galactico’ type signing every year, as they have been sold on the idea that they can recoup the ‘investment’ they make in merchandising & advertising sales involving those ‘big name’ players. What they are not prepared to do is bankroll a summer of bringing in five or six ‘mid-range’ players who could radically transform the playing squad but who do not have much ‘merchandising appeal’ in their own right.
You might say: “Well, that’s their right as the Club owners”. Yes, it is, but as the Club’s fans, who have invested our hearts and lives into United, we cannot afford to ‘shrug our shoulders’ in such a manner at what amounts to a ‘handbrake’ being applied from the boardroom to the manager’s desire to acquire players that he believes we need to properly compete in all competitions.
Ivan Perisic is a case in point. I believe that the difference between what United offered and what Inter Milan wanted to be willing to do business with us for the player was a few million Pounds, which the Glazers refused to sanction. Despite misgivings about the player’s true value being less than the inflated valuation put on him by the Italian giants in the summer, I don’t think anyone who supports United would now claim that Perisic wouldn’t be a useful option for Mourinho on the left side of the team, where Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have struggled for consistency, and Luke Shaw has toiled to even be deemed worthy of consideration for a shirt most weeks. However, unlike Pogba, Romelu Lukaku or Zlatan Ibrahimović, Ivan Perisic is not a ‘big name’ player, a player who is likely to sell hundreds of thousands of shirts or be a sensation on social media…so his ‘value’ to the Glazers is limited, since it’s not his ability on the pitch that they are primarily concerned about.
A further related question is: would we want United to become like a City or Chelsea, simply ‘buying’ our way to trophy successes rather than developing our own young players and complimenting them with some strategic sensible purchases which are self-funded through the Club’s undoubted success as a business off the park…? I think that the vast majority of fans feel as I do, in that we have a proud tradition at Old Trafford of bringing talented young players through our youth set-up and giving them the stage to showcase those talents to the watching world… that should NEVER CHANGE. However that does not negate from trying to genuinely compete with the likes of City and Chelsea for a top, top player if and when the manager feels that player would lift the overall quality of the squad beyond what we have available in our own system. Eden Hazard is one such player who apparently chose Stamford Bridge over Old Trafford simply because Chelsea offered him a better financial package than we did…I don’t think anyone would argue now that that was a poor decision on our part.
In reality there is nothing anyone can do to change the owners’ mind-set. They have never been interested in United for success ON the pitch, rather for ‘success’ as a money-generating business off it. Until they are bought out, the Glazers will continue to be a cancer, eating away at the well-being of Manchester United.
I don’t want to be seen to be using this as an excuse, but the simple fact is that NO club could hope to carry on unaffected having sustained so many significant injuries to key players, especially when the players are from just two positions in the team, namely centre-back and central midfield.
Jose Mourinho has been without the services of midfield lynchpin Paul Pogba now since the Frenchman pulled a hamstring in the game against F.C. Basel in September, and the continued absence of our star player cannot be downplayed– we miss him terribly. However, his absence has now been made even more acutely felt by the injuries picked up by his ‘deputies’, Marouane Fellaini and veteran Michael Carrick, neither of whom have been available for selection since the last International break, during which Fellaini sustained a knee injury playing for Belgium.
In effect, these injuries have forced Mourinho to field Ander Herrera alongside Nemanja Matic in the defensive midfield positions, and the little Spaniard has struggled to impose himself on the games with Liverpool, Benfica and Huddersfield Town, simply not having the physical presence of any of the missing midfielders. Add in the extremely poor form of Armenian play-maker Henrikh Mkhitaryan (who appears to miss Pogba more than anyone else), and its little wonder that the number of goalscoring opportunities being presented to hitman Romelu Lukaku has plummeted in recent weeks.
Further back, the defence has had no chance to become ‘settled’, with Jose having to constantly interchange between Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, as injuries to both Jones (who had started the season in very good form indeed) and Bailly have disrupted our rhythm and forced Mourinho to throw Lindelof into the frantic pace of Premier League action earlier than he had wanted to.
Elsewhere, Luke Shaw has disappointingly failed to make much headway in his attempts to return to action at left-back, where Ashley Young has shown his versatility. Zlatan is penciled in for a return from his long-term knee ligament injury in the next few weeks, and his presence will be a boost, both as a potential partner for Lukaku up front, and to give the big Belgian some competition in games when the manager wants to play with just a single striker.
There is no doubt that injuries have played a significant role in the recent derailment of our league title challenge, and may yet hamper our European Cup campaign too. Other clubs have had occasional injuries to deal with (Benjamin Mendy at Manchester City a case in point) but nothing on the scale that Jose Mourinho has had to cope with… unless we can get key players fit to return to action quickly, this season could peter out into a frustrating anti-climax, which would be a shame given the potential that clearly exists in the squad.
Individual Player Attitude and Errors
This (players’ attitudes) is clearly an issue which CAN be addressed by the manager, and I suspect after the debacle at Huddersfield it will take a very brave (or stupid!) player to risk Mourinho’s wrath through a lazy, disinterested performance. Put simply, the performance of the team as a whole at the John Smith’s Stadium was totally unacceptable from a team claiming to represent Manchester United Football Club, where it was apparent that several players thought that merely ‘turning up’ was going to be enough to overcome the Terriers’ challenge.
One of the FUNDAMENTAL rules of competitive football at any level is that you have to earn the right to impose your tempo and tactics on the game by out-working your opponents and winning your individual battles all over the park; United singularly failed to do any of that at Huddersfield, and suffered the consequences since every single team in the Premier League are blessed with players with enough technical ability to hurt you if you allow them: Aaron Mooy duly proved that he is Huddersfield Town’s talisman with a wonderful display of determination and ability.
Individual errors are rather more difficult to legislate for, since any player can have a bad moment, or even a bad day. Juan Mata doesn’t usually fall into either category, but getting caught in possession by Mooy was fundamental to losing the opening goal on Saturday. Likewise, Victor Lindelof inexplicably ducked out of heading a standard long goal-kick by Jonas Lossl five minutes later, thereby gifting a goal to Depoitre. Having only conceded 4 goals in the Premier League to date this season, it’s perhaps churlish to dwell upon player errors as being overly significant, but the other goals we conceded, in a 2-2 draw at Stoke City, were both down to individual mistakes as well, Phil Jones the guilty party that day. You have to conclude that if the players’ concentration levels were at the level they should be then perhaps we might have conceded even fewer goals that we have.
In many ways this follows on from my observations about the Club owners. The reality is that there are four major trophies to be competed for every season, three domestically and one in Europe. With the plethora of big clubs competing for the Champions League every year, that is always going to be a very difficult competition to win. United haven’t been worthy of consideration as genuine Premier League title contenders since Sir Alex retired, and that was the primary task given to Mourinho on his appointment, to make us a serious force in England again.
It is still early in his second season, but I think that so far it would be difficult to argue that Jose has not markedly improved the team. His signings have pretty much all worked out well, Victor Lindelof being the notable exception so far, and in his case it really is too early to judge whether Victor will successfully adapt to a league which is much more frantic and competitive than the one in Portugal that he made his name in- I would add that some United fans need to ‘get off the lad’s back’ and give him the encouragement we are supposed to be there to provide….
It is ironic to be talking about the team currently lying second in the Premier League being in some sort of ‘crisis’ but that is a measure of the phenomenal start that has been made to the season by our cross-town rivals Manchester City, and perhaps also to some unrealistic expectations on the part of a lot of United fans. Pep Guardiola’s men have been ‘on fire’ so far, with Belgian creative midfielder Kevin de Bruyne showing form that has many pundits talking of him in terms of ‘best in the world’ for his position…I wouldn’t argue.
However, City don’t really compete financially on a ‘level playing field’ with everyone else, and it is a testament to that club’s innate ability to ‘shoot themselves in the foot’ that it has taken them so many years to really make their financial dominance count… they can afford to buy two top players for every position on the park, and therefore injuries and loss of individual players’ form have much less impact on them than they do at other clubs.
So, what are realistic ambitions for United this year? In my opinion, we should be capable of sustaining a challenge for a top 4 position in the domestic league (and if injuries subside from the current ‘ridiculous’ level, I see no reason why we can’t do just that), and if City falter we need to be one of the clubs who could take advantage (I suspect Tottenham and Chelsea will be the others who might benefit from a City slip).
In Europe, our results thus far have been impeccable, and winning this Champions League Group A should be a formality from here; thereafter, the knock-out stage leaves us dependent on favourable draws, as we are a level or two below sides like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Paris St. Germain. However, those are the teams we must aspire to overcome, our benchmark for next season. I think we could make it as far as a semi-final, anything beyond that is ‘fantasy land’!
The domestic cups are a distraction; whilst it’s nice to visit Wembley and lift the weird three-handled League Cup, that won’t represent the success that it did last year, as Jose’s first United trophy. The F.A. Cup still retains some historic glory, but unless winning it is coupled with a high league finish, then that would be nothing more than ending an unwelcome drought (of winning the old trophy) going back to 2004.
United have largely made the start to the league campaign that most Reds hoped they would (beating the so-called ‘lesser’ sides, with the exception of the disappointing draw at Stoke City) ahead of the trip to Anfield, but the nature of that game along with the shocking loss at Huddersfield has perhaps brought a few ‘feet back to earth’ amongst the fan-base, and we now enter a critical stage of the season with games against direct title-challenging opponents. The manager has perhaps suffered unfair criticism from some quarters given the number of key players he has had to do without recently, but ultimately he will need to find a way to maximise what he has available to him to keep United in the hunt for honours going into 2018. Let’s hope he can do just that, starting with a good display against a rampant Tottenham Hotspur side this weekend!