Jose Mourinho and Man United players should share blame for woeful form
During his first days with his players as Manchester United manager in July, Jose Mourinho told them he was a terrible loser who wasn't much fun to be around when the team weren't winning. They took that as a sign that he was a man who would win at all costs. Now they're seeing just how moody their manager can be as he gets to grips with his new job.
The players don"t need to be "Einsteins" to decipher his mood swings as United's form has dipped recently, with Sunday's 4-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge the latest low. United have yet to defeat a major rival, with just one league win from the last six games; it's a run that is closer to relegation form than the title winning form anticipated by fans at the start of the season. The team have been inconsistent and unconvincing, the line up as changeable as Manchester's weather while Mourinho searches for his strongest starting XI. Chelsea seemed far more settled with their 3-5-2 and under a manager, Antonio Conte, who inherited more of a mess than his old Serie A rival.
United are seventh in the Premier League and have slipped from second favourites to win the title to sixth. The new signings who mostly started well have seen their fortunes slip. Striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is without a league goal in 498 minutes, his longest goal drought for a decade. Eric Bailly, the most impressive of the costly close season recruits, sustained ligament damage at Stamford Bridge. Paul Pogba may have scored twice against Fenerbahce in the Europa League but he was bought to decide games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. So far, he's failed.
United have picked up one point from three games against those likely title challengers. More baffling is the omission of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a player heavily praised by Mourinho in the club's first preseason friendly at Wigan. It's been reported that the Armenian wasn't happy to be thrown into the Manchester derby for his first start, only to be substituted after 45 minutes with his manager later criticising him in public.
Stamford Bridge provided United's worst moment of the season so far, from going behind after a minute to a level of defending which fell well short of a top club. Worse, at the end, the players barely applauded the 2,836 travelling fans who'd supported them so well throughout. Instead, some were spotted smiling and hugging with rival Chelsea players. Friends they may be, but showing it so publicly when you've just been stuffed 4-0 is not going to enamour you to any fan, most of whom had made a 400-mile round-trip. They don't want the United players holding hands and bowing in unison -- just a show of appreciation.
Mourinho's record after nine league games is exactly the same as David Moyes' at the same junction. Mourinho got the United job because he wins trophies and he may still do so at the club. He could be at his most dangerous when everyone is against him, but United fans are baffled that a team with so many top players can be so underwhelming.
Mourinho presented himself as the counter to Louis van Gaal but he seems to share the same opinion of his predecessor when it comes to midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin, Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The absence of Carrick, whom he gave a new contract, in particular, baffles. He was impressive against Fenerbahce on Thursday and has been at the club long enough to know that away fans need applauding. But then it's also easy to find fault with the benefit of hindsight.
As his team were hammered, Mourinho stood, un-animated, on the Stamford Bridge touchline, his hands mostly in his suit pocket. The game went against United from the first minute but he couldn't change it for the next 90. There was little enthusiasm from United fans singing their manager's name; that came from Chelsea fans with a sardonic wit. They don't seem to miss him. Outside the ground on the Fulham Road, blue and white Jose Mourinho scarves sold for a knock-down price of £3, the sight of which prompted more laughs than sales.
Mourinho is firmly a United man now, committed to getting things right at Old Trafford, but his honeymoon is over. Fans will back him as they would any new manager -- Wednesday's Manchester derby in the league cup will see them vengeful after the September league defeat -- but his expensively assembled side need to start winning league games. Four victories from the opening nine games isn't close to being good enough, nor is a goal difference of +1. United are five points behind the leading pack of five.
The run of games up to Christmas doesn't look the most challenging, but it's like Groundhog Day. We said the same thing in the autumns of 2013, 2014 and 2015. This is the norm now for United fans living in hope of a better future while singing songs about a glorious past. They live in hope that Mourinho is the man to bring success back to the club and in fear that he's cooked his goose, a tired model who has seen better days and who doesn't seem at peace with himself. Whichever it ends up being, he's got a big task ahead and he's not the only one responsible.
His players need to raise their game, too, and be more consistent. Sir Alex Ferguson said you needed eight of your players to play well in a match for your team to convince. Mourinho, a successful manager wherever he's been, is getting four or five and while they'll be praised when they do well, they'll be criticised when they don't. Chris Smalling, the club's best player a year ago, had an awful afternoon in west London.
Yet Mourinho blaming others for the poor results will only wash for so long. He can slate players, officials, the media or the tactics of rivals but those excuses will wear thin soon.
Now Manchester United fans, who lived in a bubble of success for 23 years, have had three years of experiencing more adversity than they could have foreseen. They hoped it would end under their new manager. It hasn't, but it's still early days. In the meantime, they'll keep on supporting, forever following the boys of Man United, the Busby Babes.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.