To use the Game of Thrones strapline: War Is Coming. Embarking on his third, crucial season as Manchester United manager, it isn’t José Mourinho who is the club’s enemy. Mourinho’s past demands that he be the villain of this script, but United’s predicament predates the Portuguese and its problems are surfacing again.
As with most things of importance, there are often many layers to it. Dismissing a tetchy pre-season being simply the beginning of a typical Mourinho fallout and exit is staggeringly lazy. The incoherent post-Ferguson rebuild muddled further what was already a huge challenge, and only now are we seeing the Americans’ hand after fleecing the club of a cool £1bn over the last decade or so.
Rewind to the end of last season, mood amongst fans was split. The cold, hard numbers were better, the process increasingly jarring and unsatisfying which is in danger of becoming the default regardless of the manager. What everyone did agree on was next season is make or break for Mourinho, an uncharted third consecutive term in the post-Ferguson wilderness. Mourinho has to do better in the transfer market, get more out of his current players, get the best out of his best players and ultimately deliver a bona fide tilt for the league despite City’s high bar and Liverpool’s aspiration. Thus far, Mourinho has been backed sufficiently to more than steady the ship – but is still a way off to match City and, more recently, Liverpool. A decade of relative underinvestment and then a chaotic handover with similarly haphazard transfer ins-and-outs has added to the to-do list rather than tackled it. History is neither kind nor on Mourinho’s side. Worse still, the board’s apparent desire for marketable, trophy players further complicates and hinders genuine on-field progress.
Mourinho disclosed he identified five targets, and that he gave his superiors ample notice before the end of the season and the World Cup. At a guess, that likely includes one or two full-backs, a centre-back, a midfielder and a winger. Whether that accounts for Fred and Diogo Dalot is unclear, but Mourinho suggested not; saying he expects to get maybe one, possibly two.
United have reached an intriguing period in their rebuild five years on. The squad can relatively comfortably finish top four after last season’s gains, and compete — albeit inadequately — in the Champions League. Unfortunately for Mourinho, that appears to be enough for the owners. Mourinho did not sign up to oversee United’s transformation into Arsenal, he came to win the league and needs the backing of the board again this season to achieve that to overhaul City and stop Liverpool. The Glazers were incredibly fortunate to have Ferguson in charge and were utterly spoilt by his genius in his castle. Conditions are no longer just so to squeeze the best out of the club, such is the hot mess of pre-existing issues that will take more than two seasons to unravel. Equally, if Mourinho fails to deliver a league title before leaving, his time at United will be a failure whichever way you slice it.
The underlying subplot of ambition is playing out. Mourinho spoke strongly at the weekend about being “in trouble” for the season start and felt he needed two more signings before the window closes and the opener against Leicester at Old Trafford. The Glazers have since publicly supported the manager’s plea, but whether they back that up with any meaningful action remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Mourinho taking on the Glazers and making them put their hands in their pockets should be lauded rather than criticised. United have arguably appointed the perfect manager to challenge the owners, which may in part explain the reluctance to hire Mourinho immediately in 2013.
On the back of a preposterously enjoyable World Cup, there’s a slight back to school edge and instilling some joy or camaraderie would go a long way, if not at least some style and swagger in their play. World Cup winner Paul Pogba’s happiness and that of his manager with his player will be key. Pogba can set the tone for the team but has to discipline himself to succeed. Pogba can fulfil the potential he abundantly has to be the heartbeat of the side, and Fred’s arrival in central midfield should help unburden the Frenchman. Elsewhere, the deployment of Alexis Sánchez after a rare summer off and who gets chances alongside him and Romelu Lukaku will be fascinating. The English kids, Jesse Lingard in particular, should return with a spring in their step. Andreas Pereira looks to be ready to step up for a spot in midfield. The concern, again, is in defence and the oft-mooted option of a genuine winger.
There was little point in appointing Mourinho if you aren’t going to back him to the hilt, and there’s little point in Mourinho if he’s not gunning for titles. If the Glazers settle for top four and a hollow brand, expect aggravation which all United fans should identify with, and not confuse with individual reputations. Mourinho might feel uncomfortable with everyone behind him attacking the owners, but this one’s a noble cause even if it’s self-serving.