So, football has gone and it’s only three and a half weeks until it returns. That’s the serious business, anyway. For most of us it will never go away with a condensed transfer season to get everyone over-reacting and hyperactive set to fill the gaps.
This week Manchester United head to Los Angeles to commence their pre-season tour, with Brazilian midfielder Fred and Portuguese defender Diogo Dalot being the club’s only major signings this summer (with veteran goalkeeper Lee Grant also signing with a long-term view to becoming goalkeeping coach at the club).
It leaves, realistically, room for two or three new arrivals, although Jose Mourinho will be busy handling departures too (Daley Blind being left behind from the tour as he prepares to return to Ajax for around £19m). It won’t stop the likes of some, throwing anywhere between ten and twenty names at the wall and frothing at the mouth saying that the club’s management (who exactly? Take your pick) are to blame for the demise if they don’t sign all of them.
It’s clear that reinforcements are needed. Is one likely to be Ivan Perisic, the Croatian winger who starred despite defeat in yesterday’s World Cup Final? Hardly, considering the embarrassment of riches United already have on that side. But it does mean Mourinho will surely identify a creative output on the right to balance it out. It feels as though Ed Woodward is placing several eggs in the Gareth Bale basket; Madrid are in a selling mood as they seek to boost their own finances and it’s not an unrealistic option. If it doesn’t come off, then you’d have to think Mourinho has his eyes on an alternative.
He did last season; it was Perisic. It didn’t come off for whatever reason, but looking back at how we did, you might say that the winger may have made a bit of a difference but not so much that it would have bridged the gap between United and City.
The major question for Mourinho this summer is if he has done enough work to address that but the truth is that the question is misleading. As we have seen with City’s £60m move for Mahrez and planned swoop for Jorginho for the same price, money will be no object for the Premier League champions.
What is a realistic ambition for United then depends partly on their own transfer activity so we should wait to assess on that score. Regardless, there is room for improvement at the club with the squad United have.
In defence, Mourinho eked out every bit of quality from his players. This writer has criticised Young, Valencia, Jones and Smalling (and Rojo for that matter), but collectively they hit their peak last season, collectively, and probably individually. They conceded fewer than thirty goals, an achievement for which Mourinho deserves so much credit. Unfortunately the manager cannot go on the pitch and eradicate the individual errors which still served to undermine those great achievements. What is hoped is, even if there are no more defensive replacements to come in (and we have to hope there will be at least one full back), Mourinho has more faith in Lindelof and that Bailly remains fit.
Still, United could have removed all of those individual errors last season — Jones at Stoke, Jones and Smalling at Leicester and Spurs, Smalling at Newcastle just for starters — and they still wouldn’t have closed the gap on City.
Paul Pogba’s performance in winning the World Cup predictably provoked pundits (like the alliteration?) into questioning Jose Mourinho’s deployment of the midfielder. There has been glorious revisionism to tell us Pogba was awful last season.
Pogba scored 6 goals — just about his average for a normal season — and had ten assists, as high than anyone outside of Manchester City who wasn’t Mohamed Salah. Equal to Christian Eriksen and Mahrez, both of who played around ten times more than Pogba last season. He was the outstanding player in the league before his September injury, and put in his two best performances in a United shirt when he starred in wins at Arsenal and Manchester City.
There were games where he was dreadful, admittedly, with two standout matches which come to mind, at Spurs and at home to West Brom. At Wembley, Jose Mourinho lined up with just two in midfield, going attack heavy with the newly signed Alexis Sanchez up front. Pogba was left to be the legs alongside the slower Matic and United couldn’t get any momentum to recover from their early deficit.
Against the Baggies, after Pogba’s starring performance at City, Mourinho seemed to accede to critics by playing him on the left of a 3 again. He was as ineffective as he was effective in the derby. Where it can certainly be levelled at Mourinho that he got it wrong against Spurs, it seems obscene to blame the manager for Pogba’s poor display against West Brom.
Still, what we can fairly take from that is that there is work to do on both sides. Mourinho has at least done his part in signing Fred, but we now have to hope that he know his squad well enough to play them to their strength. Much of that, obviously, depends on the strength of United’s defence, and this is again now not only Mourinho’s responsibility but now he will undoubtedly be culpable.
The benefit of whatever doubt many have of Mourinho is given in the trust of a third season, but it is clear that those who had reservations prior to his arrival have now disregarded the double Cup win of 2017 and, in most parts, don’t even accept last season’s second place as progress. Their patience is wearing thin and in matters such as these — deciding who is at fault for underperformance — those fans will back the player and not the manager.
For those who didn’t want Mourinho at the club, they see justification in those concerns from last season’s performance; they see a manager who has got his team playing poor football and a manager who is also already responsible for player dissent. For them, it is more the fault of Mourinho than the player for the current situations with, for example, Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial. The cracks, according to those voices, are already beginning to show.
There is a divide in the support now, and so even though United are just as desperate for a powerful manager as they have been since the Ferguson reign, those annoyed supporters are generally dissatisfied with that man being Mourinho, and so if his actions appear to rub up a popular player the wrong way, it results in support for the player and not the coach.
As someone who has written and spoken in defence of the manager, and as someone who still hopes he is the right man for the job, it cannot be denied that he is now at least partly responsible for some of the shift in attitude.
After all, his remarks about the expectations of the club based on their recent performances (and even their historical standards) at certain points last season was deeply concerning; even if they were strictly true, the motivation behind the comments were unsettling.
Some Manchester United fans will expect the club to win the title this season; anything less, and Mourinho should be sacked. Others will expect at least a serious challenge and this is a reasonable expectation. You can take Manchester City out of the equation, you can forget about the progress from the dire performances under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal, and you can look at the other 36 games and say United could have done better.
There are eighteen other teams United play and it is most likely in those games where the title will be won or lost. A line I have used many times is that in terms of resources, City’s superior expenditure puts them in front as almost unreasonably advantaged favourites. But United are next in line; therefore, second is the minimum expectation. Mourinho is not renowned for his long term planning; there is nothing which suggests there is a vision over the next three or four years which will disregard hopes of success over the next season.
And this coming season it will be a test of Jose Mourinho’s management to see how and if he can close the gap to City by improving their results against the rest. One expects that it will require ruthless consistency in order to alleviate the critics. If it doesn’t come, and if United’s attacking potential continues to flatter to deceive, you will have to think that the manager will be on borrowed time.