Exacting standards are key. You can point fingers at José Mourinho all you want, but the problem is something greater at Old Trafford than Mourinho. Regrettably, the fact that José Mourinho is still the Manchester United manager demonstrates vividly to both the players and the fans that the best is simply not required at Manchester United anymore. It was evident in the work rate, effort and guile of the players in the performance against Crystal Palace last Saturday.
Then again, the same could have been said of Louis Van Gaal in 2015. That the Dutchman survived for a good five months beyond United’s calamitous Boxing Day defeat to Stoke showed that Manchester United were no longer setting the greatest challenges to their staff and players, and that they were willing to accept less than the best. That Stoke defeat, more than any other, let the rot seep in. United were no longer at the standard of a Barca, a Real or a Barca and Saturday’s dismal home draw was merely the latest evidence in a long line, of how far Manchester United have fallen.
Ironically, standards are not what they were in those clubs this season either. Real Madrid lost this weekend while Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United all drew in inglorious fashion. There is a pervasive view that Mourinho remains in situ at United because there are no alternative viable options as manager. That may be true, but the situation is not likely to improve in the future with the majority of those clubs likely to be looking for a new manager also.
José Mourinho’s time as Manchester United manager should end, but his stewardship at the club is only part of the problem. Management at board level is clearly slow to appreciate the on-field struggles of the club. On Saturday against Crystal Palace, Mourinho’s side appeared devoid of ideas to break down a side who had only won two of their previous twelve games. The ‘lump-it long’ strategy was rudimental while United’s transitions from defence to attack were generally individualistic, spear headed by a lone player who then did not identify any passing options in the opposition half.
For a manager who prides himself on team building, two years in, Mourinho’s Manchester United do not look like a cohesive unit. They do not look like a team who play for one another, like players who look to help one another out in times of need. In the final third, every player seems too busy trying to evade their defender in order to look around and provide an option for the man on the ball.
The out-ball from defence against Crystal Palace on Saturday was largely built around Matteo Darmian, a player who has barely featured for Mourinho yet on his surprise inclusion on Saturday, he appeared central to every attack. Ultimately, his lack of match sharpness showed.
Guardiola’s City, Klopp’s Liverpool and Pochettino’s Spurs are the in-vogue teams in modern day Premier League football. Each teams’ first line of defence is built around high intensity pressing. Not wishing to return to an Arsene Wenger/Sam Allardyce style debate from 2003 in which we argue how ‘all teams’ should play, it is fair to say that there are many ways to win a football game. Manchester United’s front players do not necessarily need to press like those other sides, but the lack of pressure applied by United players while Palace were on the ball on Saturday was abysmal.
Not only did Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial fail to close down or put opposition players under pressure, but it was a malaise evident across the entire side. Even in the Manchester United half, Crystal Palace players were allowed the freedom of the field with time and space on the ball. This is not only a failing of Mourinho’s “low-block” defensive setup but also the players who did not have the common sense, intelligence or concentration to bring the game to Crystal Palace. Nemanja Matić operated at a pedestrian pace which suited Crystal Palace and they put the Serb under pressure every time he got on the ball.
Mourinho said after the game that United lacked “intensity.” Every fan inside the ground could see that United lacked intensity, and they were not being paid a king’s ransom like José Mourinho to see that. The players lacked intensity and while I have advocated that Mourinho should not remain in the job as Manchester United manager, it is equally reasonable that the entire Manchester United squad are currently playing for their jobs under the next manager.
Ex-Manchester United youth player Eamon Dunphy once wrote about being a Manchester United player in the 1960s:
“It was about concentration, resilience, mental and spiritual hardness, a certain kind of inner resolve that had to be summoned up every day, on demand, regardless of your mood. Some days were good, some days bad, but every day mattered.”
It was clear on Saturday that not every player appreciated the need for this effort and inner resolve. Even those that did, said something more damning about the club as a whole. While Ashley Young was arguably the dominant player on the ball on Saturday, his late career renaissance is more indicative of the falling standards of Manchester United than the resurgence of a brilliant career.
It started with that Stoke loss. It was clear from then on that Manchester United simply did not expect the best anymore, and this mentality has seeped into the team ever since. It is a rot. It is a malaise. It is a poison that begins with Ed Woodward and goes all the way down to the players. There might be no viable options to replacing Mourinho, but it is hard to imagine others doing any worse.
Even without a viable candidate to replace Mourinho – a nonsense argument for another day – keeping Mourinho as manager sends the wrong message to the players and the fans. There should be no acceptance of the drudgery as we saw on Saturday and a club like Manchester United should accept nothing but the best.
It would be a message to the players, who would then in turn need to increase their efforts or suffer similar fates.