The questions began shortly after José Mourinho was sacked, but intensified in the aftermath of the 5-1 and 3-1 defeats of Cardiff and Huddersfield. How have Manchester United’s players suddenly began to play so well? How was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer able to get his message across to the players in just two training sessions before the Cardiff game?
Similarly, even Sir Alex Ferguson’s ghostwriter Paul Hayward suggested in the Telegraph that pundits might soon began to suspend Christmas compassion and ask why United’s players were suddenly able to play so ably only four days after Mourinho’s sacking following 5 months of ineptitude.
It was never clear whether the players supported Mourinho or not. They put in abject performances against West Ham and Derby only to return masterfully against Newcastle. They were poor against Southampton only to put Fulham to the knife edge the following week. The performances for Mourinho were schizophrenic and it never seemed like the players knew whether they supported the manager or not.
It prompts a broader question: should Manchester United’s stars be held accountable for their supposed lack of professionalism during Mourinho’s reign? Did they give their all? Former captain Roy Keane slammed the Manchester United players last week for being “weak,” but they are no different to players at any club and these things have happened before.
Even at Manchester United. Twenty-six years of Alex Ferguson unfairly biased United fans, and ex-players, clearly too.
Firstly, let’s not be naïve and suggest that Paul Pogba is the first player to ever openly question his manager. Beyond Pogba, great players and current club legends have done it in the past. Ryan Giggs reportedly shouted obscenities at David Moyes from the bench during a 5-0 away victory over Bayer Leverkusen in November 2013.
Return to the 1960s and 1970s, and it was evident that managers such as Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell were not supported by players such as Bobby Charlton and George Best, men who went over their manager’s head to Matt Busby whenever it suited them. The effort levels of Manchester United players this season has been heavily criticised. Denis Law was criticised by Frank O’Farrell for a perceived lack of fitness. These are not new problems affecting the team or the supporters that patronise the club every week.
It may well emerge in the months to come that Mourinho was a negative figure behind the scenes at Old Trafford, and perhaps also an absent one too. In his book The Special One, Diego Torres revealed that Mourinho rarely visited the Real Madrid training ground towards the end of his reign so a lack of input in tactical sharpness could be attributed to that. Mourinho famously lived in a hotel while in Manchester, commuting from London, so it is highly likely that a similar story to the Torres one might one day emerge.
Modern football as a whole is not as accountable as it would seem. For all Roy Keane’s condemnation of the current crop of United players, many observers of his more recent work might also see evidence of weakness.
In the final days of the Martin O’Neill/Roy Keane reign in charge of the Republic of Ireland it emerged that the pair were not always hands-on at training, that training was largely run by the players and amounted to little more than five and ten a side matches with little or no tactical preparation. The same Roy Keane who had once walked away from a World Cup in 2002 due to the lax team preparation was now overseeing a similarly shoddy regime.
Accountability it seems might be required from more than just the players.
Manchester United sprung to life against Cardiff last Saturday, playing with a freedom that fans have seen before this season. Generally, it came in games where Manchester United were already losing, such as against Newcastle or Chelsea so to play with life and freedom is not a wholly new experience. It didn’t require massive tactical tweaking.
Equally, fans witnessed Manchester United win games under José Mourinho. United even scored four goals in a game on sixteen different occasions under the Portuguese, but what they did not see, especially in recent months, was whether these players could consistently string together a run of games. The fans can forgive a lot of things, and might yet forgive the current players players for their poor performances during the end of the Mourinho reign, but only if these players now cast off their shackles and play respectable football for the rest of the season.
As the players who mutinied under McGuinness and O’Farrell in the past learned, the Manchester United fans can and will forgive them for their performances under Mourinho in 2018. It was the careers of McGuinness, O’Farrell and even Moyes and Van Gaal, that were destroyed by Manchester United rather than those of the players. But the players now need to prove to the fans that they deserve to wear the shirt; that they deserve to consign their ‘lost weekend’ of 2018 to history and that as 2019 looms, these players have the ability that brought them to Manchester United in the first place and they reward the fans for their patience.