A maudlin mood has descended over Manchester United.
Manager Jose Mourinho has done all he can to spark fears of his dreaded ‘third-season syndrome’. Pick your target, from moribund transfer dealings to the price of tickets, the Portuguese has rallied against it.
Performances on the pitch have been drab and results mixed. This is no surprise when seven players for last term’s runners-up made World Cup 2018’s semi-finals and were unavailable in the United States.
Mourinho is applying pressure from all angles on executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to bring in more new faces, to join Brazil centre midfielder Fred, Porto full-back Diogo Dalot and reserve goalkeeper Lee Grant.
A “difficult season” has been promised if additional business isn’t done.
L 1-0 Bayern Munich
W 2-1 Real Madrid
L 4-1 Liverpool
D 1-1 AC Milan
D 0-0 San Jose Earthquakes
D 1-1 Club America
United’s tour of America will not be remembered fondly.
Shaky form, depleted sides and some embarrassing attendances were witnessed. For Mourinho, their five-match sprint around the country turned into a trial of endurance.
“Pre-season is very bad, I have to say that,” he bemoaned.
“The only positive thing of pre-season is for the young boys.”
The portrayal of a club in meltdown was overegged. Yet, real problems were incurred.
Mourinho’s breaking down of his relationship with wantaway France forward Anthony Martial was the nadir. There appears no way back after his failure to return to the States after the birth of his child in Paris.
Early run-outs against Club America and San Jose Earthquakes were instantly forgettable. A 9-8 penalty-shootout win against AC Milan provided the only entertainment of a stint in which Mourinho has repeatedly experimented with a 3-5-2 formation.
A 4-1 humbling by rivals Liverpool made awful viewing, although the tour to forget ended on a high point with a dogged 2-1 victory against Real Madrid.
Then came the weekend’s 1-0 loss at a far-stronger – and superior – Bayern Munich.
Key ins: Diogo Dalot – Porto, £19m; Fred – Shakhtar Donetsk, £47m; Lee Grant – Stoke City, £1.5m; Andreas Pereira – Valencia, loan return
Key outs: Michael Carrick – retirement, Daley Blind – Ajax, £18.5m; Joel Pereira – Vitoria Setubal, loan
Mourinho has been at pains to portray the image of a man who always demands more.
United moved quickly to beat champions Manchester City to the signing of Fred – who would incur slight injury prior to the World Cup. A plethora of rivals were then headed off to land Dalot, also struck down by a knee problem, for whom Mourinho has labelled him within his age group as “the best full-back in Europe”.
Little is expected of third-choice goalkeeper Grant, but he has not let himself down when picked for friendlies.
Now, comes a flood of negatives.
Mourinho was forced to abandon the pursuit of more full-backs and from a list of “five names” that were submitted “a few months ago”, it appears only another centre-back will be added. In an ideal world, a right winger – potentially to replace Martial – is coveted.
A pursuit of emerging England defender Harry Maguire has stumble because of the world-record fee demanded by Leicester City. Tottenham Hotspur are proving similarly tough negotiators for Toby Alderweireld.
This has led to talk of moves for Barcelona’s Yerry Mina and Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng, before Thursday’s transfer deadline.
The only way is up
At least when Mourinho comes to analyse a dreary run of friendlies, the cause is obvious.
Some of football’s better players were enjoying their holidays as their club-mates endured a vexed Mourinho in North America.
Centre forward Romelu Lukaku experienced a strong spell in Russia for Belgium, while mercurial midfielder Paul Pogba was arguably the final’s defining player for victors France.
Another success story was produced by Victor Lindelof’s assured displays at the heart of Sweden’s defence.
Forward Alexis Sanchez also enjoyed his first whole summer off in nine years, thanks to Chile’s failure to qualify.
Leicester should be aware for Friday’s big kick-off.
Pereira stakes his claim
Few United players had more to prove in this pre-season – and few did more with the opportunity afforded to them than United’s Brazilian centre midfielder, Andreas Pereira.
The trip to the United States acted as a showcase for the 22-year-old’s talents after he spent last term on loan at Valencia, against Mourinho’s wishes.
He responded in style. The former PSV Eindhoven starlet played more minutes than anyone else in North America and scored a sumptuous free-kick against Liverpool.
With Pogba just returned from holiday and Nemanja Matic injured, he’s a certain to start Friday’s opener against Leicester City.
Not so special
Mourinho has represented the ‘Angry One’ since his return to the United fold.
Angered by a perceived lack of backing in the transfer market, with the largesse afforded to Jurgen Klopp by Liverpool a particular sour point, he has lashed out.
Rather than focus on what he’s not got, Mourinho would have been well served to work on improving what is already in situ.
The “not even 30 per cent of my squad” still contained the likes of Juan Mata and – when visa issues were belatedly sorted – Sanchez. Players to work on, rather than ask to defend excruciatingly deep.
United’s defence also looked flaky, a situation still apparent when Javi Martinez headed in the only goal for Bayern.
Did Mourinho work to eradicate these issues himself, or just expect Woodward to solve them in the market?
Injuries keep mounting
It’s been a regular cry from Mourinho.
The United boss has grown weary about seeing so many of his first-choice stars restricted to the treatment table. Frustratingly, this theme continued during the summer.
Fred suffered a problem in the build-up to the World Cup for Brazil and fellow new boy Dalot is sidelined until next month. Errant left-back Luke Shaw picked up and recovered from a minor problem in America, Serbia defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic will miss the start of the season after he underwent surgery and injury-prone Ivory Coast centre-back Eric Bailly was forced off against Bayern Munich.
It will also be interesting to see how the likes of Phil Jones get on in the month’s ahead after they accepted truncated summer breaks after their international duty in Russia.
This state of play denies Mourinho the consistency all top teams require.
The positives are far outweighed by the negatives as United head into 2018/19.
Mourinho has seemingly created this poisonous atmosphere in a bid to force Woodward’s hand in the transfer market. Thus far, this technique has proven ineffectual.
United were City’s closest challengers last term, mathematically speaking. Fred and Pereira point to a stronger midfield, a rested Sanchez looks in better shape plus so many United players had great World Cups.
Now, the bad stuff. Ponderous United’s struggles creating chances continued, they enjoyed only 29 percent possession against an undercooked Madrid plus the triumvirate of Sanchez, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata mustered no shots on target in defeat to Bayern.
Mourinho has done nothing to dispel the narrative that he never lasts more than three seasons – a statistic borne out throughout his managerial career.
The vibe at Old Trafford has to change – and fast.
With speculation about the France midfielder’s future once again rife amid reports of interest from Barcelona, former United defender Ferdinand has told executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to keep the 25-year-old.
Manager Jose Mourinho has already predicted a “difficult season” if United do not do more business, so losing a World Cup-winning midfielder would only add to that.
As a result, Ferdinand – who made over 450 appearances for United – wants Pogba to stay and Spurs defender Toby Alderweireld to come in.
Referencing reports that Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, is looking at the Camp Nou as a possible new home for his player, Ferdinand said on Twitter: “Don’t you dare allow this ED… #MUFC is Pogba’s home!! Silence these rumours ASAP & get @AlderweireldTob through the door.”
United start their Premier League campaign on Friday at Leicester and, speaking on Sunday, Mourinho told MUTV: “My CEO knows what I want and I still have a few days to wait and see what happens.
“The other clubs who compete with us are really strong and already have fantastic teams. Or they are investing massively like Liverpool, who are buying everything and everybody.”
Both were Chelsea discards during Mourinho’s second spell at the club. So was Lukaku, but he’s ended up playing under Mourinho at Manchester United and has flourished – unlike his team-mate Martial.
The young Frenchman arrived with much fanfare at the end of the 2015 summer window, with United having plucked a seemingly unknown for an eye-popping transfer fee – the initial £36million outlay was itself the highest transfer paid for a teenager at that point.
And, if you add on add-ons, the overall sum has the legs to exceed £57million. One of those such contractual terms is said to include a clause for Martial winning the Ballon d’Or.
In today’s market, £57million for a future Ballon d’Or winner would be a steal. Kylian Mbappe‘s transfer fee is roughly three times that.
Whether Martial has the potential to the best player in the world in the future remains to be seen. He’s shown flashes of immense talent – instantly, at United, scoring a famous solo goal within minutes of coming on during debut against rivals Liverpool, and on plenty of occasions since.
Indeed, talent is the not the question. The question is whether he applies himself well enough or not – and whether his manager is stifling him.
Martial embodies two of the loudest criticisms of Mourinho – that he wastes or ruins young players, and that he can’t work with players who have flair. And it’s true that the former Chelsea, Porto, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid manager demands a certain work rate in defence from his attacking players, causing some of those players to struggle as a result.
Thus the belief, seemingly held by the player himself along with many fans and pundits, is that Martial would thrive under a different manager. If he were given more freedom to express himself, he could well end up being the best player in the world.
Yet he’s actually coming off the most productive season of his United career, tallying 11 goals and nine assists in all competitions in 2017-18. He had a great first-half to the season, before fading after the arrival of Alexis Sanchez.
Anthony Martial in the Premier League for Man Utd:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 13, 2018
• 2,632 minutes
• 11 goals
• 4 assists
• 1,558 minutes
• 4 goals
• 6 assists
• 1,584 minutes
• 9 goals
• 5 assists
Which brings up the second criticism of Mourinho. Buying a big-name star in a season where an established young player was doing well is cited as one of the reasons for Martial’s poor second-half to the campaign.
The Frenchman, who was left out of the Les Bleus World Cup squad, was moved over to the right wing to accommodate the Chilean, despite having thrived on the opposite flank, and ended up getting fewer minutes as he slipped below Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata in the pecking order, thus losing form and confidence.
And then this summer, which began with his agent saying Martial wanted to leave United, ended with him being left behind in Manchester as the squad flew to Munich for their final pre-season friendly. In the middle, he became a father, but took flak from Mourinho for not returning quickly enough after the birth of his child.
The club don’t want to grant his wish to leave, as they see the same talent that Martial’s fans do and are loathe to the idea of that talent flourishing elsewhere, as De Bruyne, Salah, and Lukaku have after leaving a Mourinho-managed club. Mourinho is apparently less fussed, disgruntled by a player who doesn’t meet his standards of work rate and commitment to the cause.
However legitimate the criticisms of Mourinho may be, though, he’s not foolish enough to discard a player with “best in the world” potential without reason – especially not after spending a year hearing about Salah and De Bruyne. If he’s willing to let Martial go, his complaints about a lack of application or work ethic may be worth heeding.
United fans are hoping Martial joins that list of players, rather than the one headlined by De Bruyne, Salah, and Lukaku. But is there a possibility that he doesn’t have the dedication to join either?
It may end up being his next manager’s job to find out.