It was an hour after Manchester United’s 4-1 win against Fenerbahçe when Jose Mourinho and his assistants headed back to their transport for lifts to their home in a Salford hotel. Mourinho had given his verdict on the match:
Am I happy with the performance? Yes. Am I happy with individual performances? Yes. And I am happy with the result which is the most important because the result is difficult.
United’s manager had changed into a club-issued grey tracksuit and went to joke with some journalists waiting in the mixed zone under the Stretford End. But he had a problem. Once he’d finished his bottle of water he didn’t know where to put it. He looked around for a bin. There was none. He found a ledge and put the bottle there for somebody else to dispose of. It was the smallest of the many decisions he makes every day.
Some seem more curious than others, like the fact he’s barely used Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the costly, exciting, best player in the Bundesliga last season. Michael Carrick, excellent against the Turkish strugglers, would also have hoped for more minutes, Morgan Schneiderlin too. At least they’ve made it onto the pitch – Bastian Schweinsteiger, captain of the current world champions until recently, hasn’t. Whatever fans say, the decisions rest with the manager.
Late last Thursday night at a chilly Old Trafford, Mourinho had reason to smile before he heads back to his former club in West London for the first time since he was sacked by Chelsea last season. His United side had scored four times and his most expensive player had scored two of the goals.
Paul Pogba needed that lift, Mourinho also, given his side sit only seventh in the Premier League table. Although it is still very early in the season; it’ll be fairer to judge him after 28 or 38 league games and not eight.
Mourinho made seven changes from the side that drew at Anfield on Monday, a result he was also very satisfied with, but one which earned him some criticism for the cautious approach of his team which meant they only touched the ball four times in Liverpool’s box. Mourinho had three games to plan for within seven days, two of them away at Liverpool and Chelsea. He couldn’t afford to lose at Anfield and see Liverpool go six points clear of his side – before a visit to his old club on Sunday and hosting Manchester City in the English League Cup next Wednesday.
The boys showed they can go to Anfield, one of the hardest places to visit in the Premier League, and control not only the game but the atmosphere,” he wrote in his programme notes before the Fenerbahçe win. That’s a big statement which not many teams are capable of. Of course it would have been fantastic to come away with three points, as we did have the chance to do that, but our display spoke for itself.
The United boss put his own positive spin on a disappointing match and many fans buy into his reasoning. He still enjoys a huge bank of credit. If his side beats Chelsea this weekend then he’ll feel more emboldened. He also has the small matter of Manchester City at home in the League Cup next Wednesday. Big games every few days. That’s what Manchester United want, yet the euphoria from the start of the season among fans has been deflated.
Perhaps the optimism of an immediate return to winning trophies was unrealistic – the club certainly felt so. But the fans were delighted that Louis van Gaal was no longer manager, with his possession-heavy, penetration-free football – which he seemed satisfied with, but his players and the fans who paid his wages were not. For their part, the players enjoy training under Mourinho far more than they did under Van Gaal.
Van Gaal’s departure raised spirits, as did the Portuguese’s arrival. He was the manager the vast majority of fans wanted. Before a ball was kicked, he had a better start than his two predecessors as four players were decisively signed before the team had played a match. It gave rise to the belief that United once again had a side to win the Premier League.
Four wins from his first four games only fuelled the mood that all was well again in United’s world. In several polls of match-going fans, over 50% thought United would win the title this season.
Mourinho stated similar intentions about winning trophies straight away, but in private was more cautious. Like David Moyes and Louis van Gaal before him, he was struck by the size of United, by the demands put on a manager from the vast expectations to the commercial work which helps the club bring in so much money to buy players like Paul Pogba.
He’s still getting to know his players, still searching for his best team and still adapting. He’s defending players who are also settling into the club, making big decisions on players who are not as good as they once were including his captain, Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Mourinho is a man who puts the scoreline first, but he also knows that the 74,000 home fans who fill Old Trafford for almost every game want to see the attacking football that has been the hallmark of the club’s successful teams.
On one hand, United fans know the impact of three hugely underwhelming seasons since the momentous departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. On the other, they feel they have every right to be demanding, given the quality of the players at the club.
Jose will get patience and support from match-going United fans, just as Van Gaal and Moyes did, and which they both appreciated. He knows he has a huge task and outside factors can help or hinder him. When Pep Guardiola was winning every game at City including the Manchester derby at Old Trafford, envious eyes were cast across the city at how the Catalan had imposed his ideas quickly with immediate results. Yet City have faltered in recent weeks and are far from invincible as Barcelona showed. United will get a quick chance for revenge in next week’s cup game.
Mourinho has done ok so far. His team don’t yet fully convince and look like one capable of winning the Premier League title.
They must go to Stamford Bridge, a ground where United have a wretched recent record, and avoid defeat.
He would doubtless be satisfied with another goalless draw and once United get beyond the next week they have a run of games up to the New Year which aren’t as daunting. If he’s to keep the fans firmly onside, his team will need to put their foot down then.