Manchester United: The Fragile Invincibles
The margins between victory and some form of salvation can be extremely narrow. Four minutes into stoppage-time at Old Trafford last night, Zlatan Ibrahimovic spared Manchester United’s blushes with a penalty kick which rescued a point from a drab and frequently ponderous performance against Everton. Seldom before in recent years has the gap between those who drink from a glass half-full and those who drink from a glass half-empty felt so great. A late, late equaliser may have tickled the neurotransmitters of those who recall the halcyon days of “Fergie-time” and the like, and those people can also take some solace this morning from the fact that at least United’s unbeaten run remains intact.
Those who view the currently condition of Manchester United with something more of a gimlet eye, however, have somewhat richer pickings to choose from at the moment. It was the second time in four days that Manchester United had failed to take down dour opposition at home, and when this starts happening with such regularity it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that, rather than being the fault of every opposing team, the match officials, the FA, and everybody else who managers choose to blame when things don’t go according to plan other than themselves, perhaps the issue at Manchester United at the moment is the manager and the team rather than just about everybody else in the world.
With the season coming to a close, it’s only right that we should at least sit back and take stock of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. As ever, the world seems divided on his progress, but there does seem to be some degree of consensus on the fact that this has not exactly been sparkling from the one who would have us believe that he is special. Manchester United are currently in fifth place in the Premier League, with Arsenal’s implosion being the only factor keeping them in that position in the table. And even that will be lost, should Arsenal win the game that they still hold in hand on them.
The issue with gauging any progress that Manchester United may or may not have made over the last nine months or so is that the top six is effectively a division within a division. Such is the quality of the opposition – and few expected Chelsea to come roaring back to life in the manner in which they did – that upward mobility will always be a challenge. On the other hand, though, slipping much further down the table is also difficult, such is the gap in resources between those top six clubs and those that sit below them. If we assume, therefore, that significant improvement on last season would have seen Manchester United in, say, the position in which Tottenham Hotspur find themselves today, whilst significant regression might have seen the club several places lower in the table and having been knocked out of all of the major cup competitions, then Jose Mourinho has doing okay, so far. No more, no less.
The question therefore becomes one of whether, given the stratospheric expectation levels that come with this club, there can ever be such a thing as “okay”. Delivering the League Cup in February was a start, though coming to depend on winning the Europa League in order to qualify for next year’s Champions League feels like an accident waiting to happen. It may well be that, in terms of setting the club up for next season, this is all Mourinho has left. After an underwhelming few days, his team is four points behind Manchester City with nine games to play, and those nine games feature matches against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, and Arsenal. The chase for fourth place isn’t over yet, but it is starting to look more like a battle of hope against expectation rather than anything else.
At this point, the question becomes whether it is possible to do “okay” as the manager of Manchester United or not. Such are the lofty levels of expectation at this particular club, that there may even not be any room for middle ground, in terms of holding an opinion. As mentioned above, both progression and regression from the position in which Manchester United found themselves upon his appointment was difficult, and a trophy has already been a delivered, with a possibility of a further one that would also deliver Champions League football regardless of what else happens in the Premier League this season. The injury list has been horrendous, at times.
But is this really enough? A very substantial amount of money has been spent on players, and at the moment the improvement upon last season hasn’t been enormous. Without the fortuity of having Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s talents leading the attacking line, performance this season might well have been considerably inferior to that which has been seen. And the football has not sparkled, as predicted before the start of the season, as seen by the last two performances. Manchester United’s players aren’t bad, as simplistic hot takes might have us believe. But many of them are under-performing and, whilst the players themselves should take a degree of responsibility for this, the manager surely has to as well.
The manager, however, appears to steadfastly refuse to do so. Henrikh Mkhitaryan – dropped last night after being one of the scapegoats for Saturday’s anaemia – was the Bundesliga’s player of the year last year. Paul Pogba’s move to Old Trafford was a world record transfer fee. Mourinho argued from the off that it may take these players a long time to adjust to the Premier League, but the luxury of time isn’t really an option when your club is one of the biggest and wealthiest on the entire planet. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, arguably last season’s big plus points from an otherwise tepid season, are both young players who have seen their development stall. Performances, critics have argued, have become one-dimensional. Manchester United have scored almost twenty goals fewer than the other five clubs at the top of the table. But the buck has to stop somewhere, eventually.
Make no mistake about it, this is not a crisis. Manchester United are still in the Europa League, and a place in next year’s Champions League remains a possibility, even if the most likely means of achieving this is through the “back door” of winning the Europa League. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling, however, that Manchester United remain a club without a strategy. Talented young players aren’t improving. Established stars only seem to shine in fits and starts. The swagger that comes with a club that is firing on all cylinders remains nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the Alex Ferguson years – at least the last two decades of them – were an outlier. Perhaps Manchester United need to rebuild from the base rather than maintaining the current policy, which seems to be to get distracted by shiniest bauble in their direct line of vision at any specific moment. Mourinho will get his chance at Old Trafford, but the first signs of dissent may be swelling in the ranks. He will likely have no alternative but to get it right this coming summer.
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This article originally appeared in issue one of the twohundredpercent e-magazine, which is sent to subscribers each month. You can subscribe with us through Patreon.