Man United's winning run comes to an frustrating end. Is this the new norm?
MANCHESTER, England -- It was debatable which was more worrying at Old Trafford on Saturday: Manchester United's 1-1 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers or the reasoning Jose Mourinho gave afterwards for the result.
Mourinho has warned repeatedly this could be a "difficult" season, most recently at a news conference on Friday. That came after three straight wins for the first time since April, but Mourinho will feel that at the moment, nothing is straightforward.
There were spells against both Burnley and Watford where United wobbled. Against Young Boys in Switzerland on Wednesday night, the first 30 minutes were uncomfortable. In all three games, they were able to ride it out and win. They started poorly against Wolves, too, and were indebted to David De Gea for making two very good saves before Fred scored the opener.
Against Burnley, Watford and Young Boys, United found that crucial second goal. Against Wolves, it never came. Paul Pogba, brilliant in the build-up to Fred's first goal for the club, was robbed in midfield and was punished by Joao Moutinho. Still, there were 37 minutes to put things right but the onslaught, so often a hallmark of Sir Alex Ferguson's teams when they were chasing a game, never started. Ferguson was watching from the stands, back in the directors' box for the first time since suffering a brain haemorrhage in May.
By the end the United fans left inside Old Trafford were thankful that substitute Adama Traore had not taken one of his three chances on the break to make it an even more disappointing afternoon.
Wolves' big players -- Joao Moutinho in particular -- all turned up. In contrast, Alexis Sanchez was substituted for the third game in a row. He has only completed 90 minutes once this season.
More was expected from Sanchez this season. United's official website ran an article in the summer declaring that the Chile international would be fit and firing this term after his first full preseason for five years but whatever was meant to happen has not. He has yet to score this season and his record since arriving at United in January stands at just three goals in 23 games.
During the first half against Wolves, United's official Twitter account posted a picture of Sanchez along with the message "This guy's been bright so far." Cue a torrent of replies all along the same lines. Has he?
Mourinho will take plenty of stick after United's latest setback. After all, he's the type of manager who attracts that type of criticism. At times this season he has invited it in a effort to take the pressure off his players -- Nemanja Matic revealed everything after victory at Burnley by saying Mourinho "knows what he is doing" -- but on Saturday, the mask slipped. He can only shoulder so much responsibility on his own, and his desire to deflect attention away from his players will wear thin if he doesn't think they're trying.
All of which leaves Mourinho back at square one. The minimum he requires is hard work and effort, things he clearly doesn't believe he's getting. It is a startling stance for the manager of one of the biggest clubs in the world.
United have already shown an ability to bounce back after back-to-back defeats to Brighton and Tottenham and they will be asked to again, first against Derby County in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday night and then at West Ham on Saturday. It feels as though that's what this season, Mourinho's third at Old Trafford, will become: two steps forward and one step back while Manchester City and Liverpool gradually disappear further into the distance.
By the end of his time in the dugout, Ferguson had become the master of the routine win. Mourinho had that skill too, particularly in his first spell at Chelsea when he guided a juggernaut to two straight titles. But for the first two months of this season, nothing has come easily. Nothing has been routine and no result has come without at least a moment of real panic.
After three straight wins, United and Mourinho were brought back to earth with a bump by Wolves. Maybe that, rather than the winning run, is the new norm.