Manchester United’s dreadful week finally concluded, following the League Cup exit at the hands of Championship side Derby, the public falling out between Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba, and the embarrassing performance and result away to West Ham.
However, there’s no guarantee that the supporters’ misery has come to an end, with a Champions League tie against Valencia on Tuesday night on the horizon. The Spanish side have had an even worse start to their domestic campaign than United, winning just one of their seven games so far this season, but that doesn’t mean an awful lot when you consider how poorly Mourinho’s team have played of late.
It had looked as though they were turning a corner, with three wins on the bounce ahead of the Derby match, but their situation has rapidly declined and talk of the manager losing the dressing room can finally be taken seriously.
Of course, this isn’t new ground for Mourinho, who has suffered a similar fate on a number of occasions before now, most famously during his last stint at Chelsea.
Having won the league in May 2015, he found himself sacked before the turn of the year with the west London club 16th in the table and just one point above the relegation zone.
The same players that he led to a league title and League Cup double months earlier had seemingly downed tools. They lost five of their opening 10 Premier League games and the squad looked utterly disinterested.
Eden Hazard, who had been named the PFA and Footballer Writers’ Player of the Year the season before, the first and only time in his career to date, went AWOL the following season. He had scored 19 goals on the way to Chelsea being crowned champions but failed to find the back of the net even once while Mourinho was manager in the following campaign.
After Mourinho was dismissed, Chelsea supporters still hung their ‘One Of Us’ banner from the stands in homage to their most successful manager of all-time, while fans showed up at Stamford Bridge with signs calling Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas “rats”. Another read: “You let Jose down, you let us down”.
Chelsea won their first game without Mourinho 3-1, with the home crowd angrily singing at their players “where were you when you were sh*t?”. Mourinho’s name was chanted on repeat, while Fabregas and Costa were booed ahead of kick-off.
A similar scenario is now unfolding at United, with Paul Pogba on the receiving end of ironic applause from the away fans when the decision was made to take him off against West Ham, followed by angry, expletive-filled abuse.
Some may wonder how Mourinho manages to turn the supporters against the club’s best players, but Pogba has managed to stir the pot himself this season. After going out of his way to speak to the media in the mixed zone following United’s opening day victory over Leicester, where he claimed he would be fined if he told the truth about how he felt, to encouraging the rumours of a transfer during the international break, to questioning Mourinho’s tactics following the draw against Wolves, the Frenchman certainly hasn’t done himself any favours when it comes to currying favour with the fans.
However, unlike the crowd at Stamford Bridge, there was little support from the fans at the London Stadium for Mourinho either. After going a goal behind early on, there were chants of “Mourinho’s red and white army” from the travelling fans, but his name wasn’t mentioned as the game wore on.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that Mourinho can turn things around at this point.
Even the fans most loyal to him have started to lose faith. He can’t motivate the players to play for him, regardless of how inept the tactics are, with them seemingly not even trying to win. Mourinho can’t coach them to complete five-yard passes or score goals from a few yards out. If they don’t care enough, they won’t do it, and their showing at West Ham suggests that’s exactly the case.
Half the team came to applaud the travelling fans on Saturday afternoon, with the others sheepishly making their way straight down the tunnel, but how many of them could genuinely claim they gave their all for the shirt? How many of them could say they left nothing on the pitch for the club that pays their wages, with supporters hauling themselves down to the capital for a 12.30pm kick-off?
Shaw jumped in to the crowd to give a child his shirt, while Rashford soaked up the applause after his decent appearance as a substitute which saw him score a brilliant goals just a minute after Pogba was taken off.
The Frenchman is by no means the worst culprit though, even if he was one to feel the brunt of the anger. Looking at his average performance level over the season so far, he’s probably been the best player, yet while his best games have been impressive, his worst have been appalling.
Mourinho’s conservative tactics obviously don’t bring out the best in Pogba, but as a player who the club forked out £89 million for, who gave his all to France in the summer, it’s galling for fans to see his alarming lack of effort in some games. When he is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad he is horrid.
Most fans, even those who support Mourinho, can acknowledge that there will be other managers who can get more out of the players though, Pogba included. Reports have claimed the Frenchman is happy in Manchester and wants to stay, but doesn’t want to play for Mourinho anymore. But does that excuse how dreadfully he and his teammates have performed this season? Say they all want the manager out, is it OK to not even try when they’re on the field?
When Chelsea sacked Mourinho the first time, just six league games in to the season, the inexperienced Avram Grant took charge. Yet in May, Chelsea were just one point off champions United and were a John Terry slip away from winning the Champions League. It’s unlikely that Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and co. wanted to see Grant in charge of their club for years ahead, yet they still showed up on the pitch.
By contrast, United’s players have shown zero professionalism or personal pride, as they stroll through games, sloppily giving the ball away and losing against teams full of players with half the talent they possess.
Chances are they will get their own way soon, with United becoming a club that bows to player power in the years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. This is something the legendary manager wouldn’t have been able to fathom happening at his beloved club.
“Some English clubs have changed managers so many times that it creates power for the players in the dressing room,” Ferguson said in September 2013. “That is very dangerous. If the coach has no control, he will not last. Players must recognise that as the manager you have the status to control events. There are occasions when you have to ask yourself whether certain players are affecting the dressing-room atmosphere, the performance of the team, and your control of the players and staff. If they are, you have to cut the cord. There is absolutely no other way. It doesn’t matter if the person is the best player in the world. The long-term view of the club is more important than any individual, and the manager has to be the most important one in the club.”
Things have changed since then, at United at least, as Mourinho comes some way down in the pecking order of importance. Even Ed Woodward, whose background is not in football, gets to make the decision over whether Mourinho’s transfer targets are worth the money or not.
Yet in reference to what Ferguson said, many supporters would argue that Mourinho is the one affecting the dressing-room atmosphere the most, so the cord must be cut, and he’s the one that has to go.
And he will, sooner rather than later if things don’t change rapidly. A win over Valencia would buy him more time but it’s hard to imagine him seeing out the season.
As for the United fans, they don’t have the same loyalty to Mourinho that Chelsea fans did. He hasn’t delivered any league titles to them. But they are right to expect loyalty and respect from the players, and whoever manages the club going forward, the squad owe more to the supporters than they are currently giving them. But you wouldn’t hold your breath on them delivering what they should on Tuesday night. United are a mess, from top to bottom, and, without a complete overhaul, it’s hard to imagine what can save them from it.