Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge
Of all the teams who needed a good start to this campaign, Manchester United are towards the top of this list. However, a limp win against Leicester City and a deserved loss to Brighton mean that cracks have been left unpapered and knives are now being steadily drawn.
Having entered what’s regarded as his fatal third season, Jose Mourinho has spent the past summer painting himself into a corner. Demands for more players and sympathy to his cause have both fallen on deaf ears while the uninspired start has failed to dry the paint at his knees.
The reflex reaction to this has seen Mourinho cast more sideways glances in Ed Woodward’s direction.
But does he have a point – could more central defenders, wing-backs, a more forwards have solved his ills or would this simply be furnishing the would-be emperor with yet more new clothes?
It’s commonly accepted that a sprinkling of summer stardust is needed to inject new impetus into a dressing room. The addition of one or two key players has become a standardised policy at Old Trafford as it has with all of their rivals.
Mourinho was lavished with seven high-profile names during his first two summers in Manchester. With a career net spend that broke through the £1 billion barrier last summer, this isn’t a trend which should surprise Mourinho’s employers.
But for all the money spent on transfer fees since he arrived in Manchester (£382.5 million total, £302 million net), their noisy neighbours have left them looking unadventurous (£518 million total, £388 million net).
So does this suggest Mourinho has been short-changed in his attempts to challenge for the Premier League title?
While the squad he inherited was in need of rejuvenation, Mourinho also gained several rough diamonds and a handful of polished gems from which to mould his new team. The direction he’s taken this challenge is what critics are now poring over.
The free transfers of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexis Sanchez arguably help bridge the gap in expenditure with City but the overall recruitment strategy has a scatter-gun feel to it, plugging gaps rather than showing an eye for long-term planning.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of where this current Manchester United team are now is in their lack of a coherent identity.
Despite the common-held notion of harbouring an over-arching defensive philosophy, Mourinho has regularly shown tactical fluidity with his sides. This, however, appears to have come at the price of no ingrained identity in their style of play.
The arrival of Fred this summer appears to be a step closer to a possession-based game but against Brighton last weekend, the Seagulls settled system helped them overcome what was a floundering United side.
Hiding from the competition
When you look at the business conducted by the two Manchester clubs in recent years, something else comes to the surface. Although City have spent around 35% more than United, they have recouped an extra £50 million through sales.
Including the £1 million transfer of Will Keane to Hull City, Mourinho has only seen six significant outfield players leave the club during his reign. This is less than half (13) of the figure Manchester City have shipped out during the same period.
With more key players arriving and less departing, the Red Devils squad has become bloated and has allowed some players to hide in the shadows along the fringe of the first team.
One thing United have looked sorely short of in their opening two games of this season are players who care for the club.
Paul Pogba’s grievances are being well documented but despite being handed the captaincy, he has failed to set the example demanded of a leader.
After dribbling into problems and losing possession, Pogba’s arms moved quickly in frustration rather than his legs in redemption. This has become a problem in all areas of the pitch for the Red Devils and they are currently fighting as individuals rather than as a team.
Part of this problem can — and should — be pointed towards the manager but in a time of brand protection, this self-entitlement quickly breeds when a cold reality knocks at the door.
Rather than bring yet more potential stars into the fold, Mourinho needs to squeeze the potential out of what he already has. Making them take ownership for their part is the only way to achieve this.
Are we sure?
Mourinho’s title-winning teams at Chelsea and Inter Milan were achieved with a much smaller core of key players and this perhaps better fits the give-everything philosophy he demands from his squad.
With five centre-backs, nine central midfielders and five players all capable of playing on the left wing, there’s plenty of fat in need of trimming from United’s squad.
This should have been Mourinho’s priority this summer but instead, he opted to court new players which further ostracised the players he’s now relying upon.
There is undoubtedly plenty of talent already at the club but by placing more trust and thrusting more responsibility on his stars to perform, heightened performances could well be the reward.
With transfer windows still open across Europe, Manchester United still have an opportunity to thin their squad and fine-tune the pecking order in their dressing room. Bringing in even more players this summer would only have exasperated the situation and caused more resentment further down the ranks.
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