José Mourinho is willing to play hardball with his owners and his players, which is convenient for Manchester United’s continued overhaul. While progress is evident, if glacial, more will be demanded from above, below – and the manager himself.
Mourinho celebrated a contract extension, 55th birthday and 100th game in charge at Yeovil in modest surroundings and routine fashion. An opportunity to cement their best-of-the-rest standing in the league, away at a rival, was again squandered with a meek and familiarly soul-searching performance. An irritatingly bullish Tottenham side took full advantage of their good fortune, dominating United into submission. Mourinho seemed perplexed, exasperated and unhappy with his players. Paul Pogba was withdrawn with half an hour to play, and then dropped for the next fixture at home to Huddersfield.
Unconvincing, but a 2-0 win nonetheless. Leaving out Pogba didn’t represent a huge gamble facing struggling opponents at home, and allowed more minutes to favoured graduate Scott McTominay. It did, however, underline who is in charge which he and his teammates ought to take notice of.
Few things more beautiful in soccer than watching players fall over themselves while trying to tackle Pogba— Zito (@_Zeets) February 3, 2018
The clamour for Pogba to be freed in a three is entirely understandable but not fully mitigating of ill-discipline when shackled with Nemanja Matić. If Pogba is to deliver on his abundant qualities, he will need to be able to manage instructions, his allocated position and his own temperament. Similar to a quick forward plying their trade and rounding their game on the wings before moving central, Pogba and United appear destined for 4-3-3 when conditions are just so. What these precise circumstances are only Mourinho can say. Meanwhile, Matić is overburdened at best and consequently so is the defence against good teams. Sacrificing a forward and rotating them more heavily would be welcomed by many.
The league has been conceded but a stronger finish than last season should be attainable, while again searching for success in the cups. Last year’s League Cup win was a timely boon, the Europa League an intense release of emotion and essential passage to set up this season. A second place finish and possibly an FA Cup would be acceptable after two summers coherently overhauling the patchwork squad. Alexis Sánchez was a timely gift but the only immediate comparison with Robin van Persie’s transfer is that United are short of central midfielders again. Mourinho will look forward to the Champions League returning, and is a win-win situation for him – either United will go far and he’ll get the credit, or they don’t and he’ll definitely need the players.
“But he gave everything, good effort and is a good feeling for me to know a player is available with that spirit,” Mourinho said of Sánchez’s United league debut. Attracting this calibre of player and retaining David de Gea shouldn’t be overlooked, though bringing all the pieces together, new and old, remains at times a house of cards.
Whether the Glazers continue to back the manager’s ambition will, for the first time, show how interested they are in chasing league titles or further European success. It is now, after all, the first period of stability since Ferguson and his hoodoo retired. Expect the wrong kind of fireworks next season if the owners are happy to settle or want more from their recent investment – for all the right reasons.