Barely a week can go by without some boorish comparisons to José Mourinho’s points total in his first campaign compared to David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, but there’s no question about which of those three teams was the best to watch. Even in United’s most turgid displays this season, this current version is a world away from the cluelessness of the Moyes year, or the soul-crushing boredom of the van Gaal era. Mourinho has improved Manchester United, but has he improved them enough?
There have been signs that a good team is in the making, but too often it feels like that progress is being impeded. There have several times this season when Mourinho’s team selection has been overly cautious, and even more occasions where his substitutions have failed to impact the game. Frequently, it’s been hard to tell just what shape the team is supposed to be playing.
For a recent example of Mourinho’s failure to clearly communicate his ideas, see the confusion in the first few minutes of the second half against Everton, after Pogba had replaced Blind. It took Ashley Young a few minutes to realize that he was meant to switch flanks over to the left-back slot, and the right-back position was apparently filled by committee for the rest of the game. When Henrikh Mkhitaryan replaced Michael Carrick, a half-fit looking Pogba - the only other source of creativity in the team - spent most of the time picking up the ball in front of the defense. Marouane Fellaini was pushed up front alongside Zlatan Ibrahimović, despite the fact that there was no one on the pitch capable of delivering threatening crosses.
These sort of patterns betray a lack of identity, and it has been an all too familiar sight for United fans this season. Team-building takes time, and most of us have enough sense not to expect that after years of financial neglect, and two successive managerial regimes marked by poor player recruitment, that any manager could return us to the glory days in one fell swoop. But Mourinho was hired precisely because he is not just any manager; he is - or is meant to be, anyway - exceptional. It is not unreasonable to be both encouraged by the progress, and disappointed by the pace of it.
For comparison, Pep Guardiola has been disappointing at City, by his own astronomical standards, but there is at least clear evidence of what his team is supposed to look like. Antonio Conte, while inheriting a better and more balanced squad than Mourinho did, has obviously been a runaway success at Chelsea. Much of that success can be put down not just to successful recruitment, but to implementing a system and a style of play that has maximized the talent at his disposal.
Mourinho’s famed man management has been uneven this season as well. He has helped shape Antonio Valencia into arguably the league’s best right-back, but how many other players have improved under his leadership this season? Mkhitaryan eventually responded to Mourinho’s tough love treatment, but even Luke Shaw’s harshest critics cringed a little at the manager’s latest jabs. Mourinho complained yet again about his attackers lacking in confidence, but it’s precisely his job to manage that sort of thing. Does anyone think that being dropped after every subpar performance is a way to breed confidence in young players like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial?
There is probably no better manager out there that can come in do any better right away. And Mourinho has shown enough on and off the pitch to demonstrate that he deserves time to finish molding United in his image. Ultimately, his tenure at Old Trafford should be judged by what the team accomplishes in the second and third seasons of his reign, rather than after a few months. But recognizing that he has done well does not absolve him of blame for not doing better.
Mourinho, like quite a few of his players, is not living up to his potential.