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16 Aug 2018

Manchester United: Are we sure... Mourinho's Third Season Syndrome will kick in?

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United's squad is one of the best around

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Points and prizes

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How far do they have to fall?

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Are we sure?

REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

From the mood on social media after the game, you wouldn't have known Manchester United were top of the Premier League.

Now, yes, their position at the top of the tree came with the caveat that none of the other teams had started climbing it yet. 

But United dispatched an energetic Leicester City side nonetheless and had a few hours to enjoy the position that brought before being overtaken by a few other fast starters.

Twitter, however, read like a post-mortem of a United defeat. They had been dominated, they were lucky to escape with three points, and the only bright spark was the domineering performance of World Cup winner Paul Pogba, who's trying to force his way out of Old Trafford anyway.

Why the doom and gloom? No, it hadn't been a great performance, but it had been a win against a good side - a side renowned for their ability to stick two fingers up at the big sides when the mood takes them.

The muted response to the win followed a pre-season build-up which has seen United written off by many fans already. It will be a two-horse race between Manchester City and Liverpool; United can fight it out with the rest of the also-rans for a shot at third.

United's squad is one of the best around

What people seem to be forgetting it just how good United's squad is. 

They have the league's best goalkeeper, a superb-if-they-can-get-the-balance-right midfield and an attack full to the brim with potential match-winners.

REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

Romelu Lukaku has settled into life at the club, Pogba looks ready to make good on his potential and Alexis Sanchez has, at last, had a bit of time off. 

He never got up and running at United last season, but some time to recharge his batteries may well help him recover the form that had both Manchester clubs clamouring to sign him a year ago.

Yet, there is the feeling that Mourinho is holding his side back. That whatever they achieve, they do so despite him, rather than because of him. Their squad might look like an F1 car, but it's being driven by a school bus driver.

Points and prizes

Is this totally fair? For all their faults, United have certainly progressed under Mourinho. They have won domestic and European cups and improved their points tally, clearing up what was left of the post-Ferguson mess and becoming a team that, pretty or not, has generally got results. 

They may have been a distant second in the title race last season but they did beat City, Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea, and Arsenal in the league. Their Champions League assault was poor and the FA Cup Final defeat stung, but it wasn't a disaster of a season.

REUTERS/Darren Staples

Perhaps that is what will save United from the third-season sickness which engulfed Mourinho at Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Chelsea again. Those falls from grace came from seasons of dizzying highs, league titles, domestic cup wins. 

It is an understandable fault from a manager whose techniques can wear players down. Pep Guardiola is unsure of his own ability to inspire his players beyond the four-season mark, remarking that he looks into their eyes and sees “Either... passion and a willingness to be seduced or you watch as the passion ebbs away.” 

Mourinho's seductive touch just doesn't seem to last as long - after the seasons of bliss he usually manages to bring to a club, the magic fades.

How far do they have to fall?

But we've never seen a third-season Mourinho side after a second season that was "alright, really when you think about it - not great, though, was it?" 

If anything, that was Mourinho's first season back at Chelsea. Remember the little horse? A season of decent results, alright performances, and lowered expectations before they rumbled their way to the title the following year.

REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

It is pretty hard to say exactly what a failure of a season would look like this time around. 

Third place and a cup run here or there wouldn't exactly represent a good return on the amount of money United have invested over the past few years, but would it be enough to trigger a Mourinho meltdown, or to push the club into sacking him?

If United come second again, they'll surpass most people's expectations while still failing to do what it is United are supposed to do - win the Premier League. If they do well in Europe, they could have a Liverpool 2017/18 situation on their hands, trying to work out if they've been successful or not.

Are we sure?

It is a more difficult question to answer than most fans seem to think. 

On the one hand, United have never really looked convincing under Mourinho, but they have got results anyway - will that continue, will the results stop coming, or will the project all finally come together?

On the other, the third-season syndrome is usually a cataclysmic failure which can involve unnecessary fight-picking with club figures, whether that be a legendary goalkeeper or a member of the medical staff. 

REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

Given the alleged animosity between the two, Pogba seems the most likely candidate there.

United may well fail to win anything this season. Two trophyless seasons in a row would probably spell the end for Mourinho at Old Trafford, and few fans would be devastated to see the back of him.

But given the current strength of the opposition and the vaguely underwhelming nature of what has come before, could it really be put down to a third-season curse? For those in charge of the club and those supporting it, that excuse isn't likely to wash.