Manchester United fans have high hopes but the mood music is not good ahead of a crunch season for Jose Mourinho, writes Adam Bate.
So much for the power of positivity. As Jose Mourinho prepares for a defining season as Manchester United manager, his list of frustrations is growing and he has not been afraid to share his concerns publicly. “Pre-season is very bad, I have to say that,” he told reporters out on the club’s summer tour of the United States. “Everything is really bad.”
The range of complaints include annoyances with the tour itinerary and grievances over the start date of the Premier League season. Disrupted preparation is the main reason for his agitation. “I’m worried,” he explained. “I have to be worried. I’m worried because I’m not training and then go to the Premier League without lots of players.”
With key men Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku involved in the World Cup until the final weekend, it has not been a straightforward build-up for United. “We are not a team,” said Mourinho after watching his side’s goalless draw with San Jose Earthquakes in front of a sparse crowd in California. “We’re a group of players from different teams.”
Some of those concerns are short term. “Against Leicester and Brighton the situation is not amazing for us,” he said this week of the first two Premier League fixtures. But Mourinho’s words and demeanour are not only down to the immediate difficulties ahead of him. There are longer-term problems too. He has refused to even discuss the club’s title prospects.
It is easy to see why he might be downbeat. It is not at all obvious that this United team is evolving in the manner that many had anticipated. In Mourinho’s previous post at Chelsea, it took him only a season to assess what was needed before bringing in Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa to address the issues. The Premier League title was duly delivered.
From the outset, Mourinho insisted this particular job was a much bigger challenge and so it has proved. With the exception of a top-class goalkeeper in David de Gea, albeit one coming off the back of a miserable World Cup experience, this Manchester United squad still requires major surgery despite the money spent. All over the pitch, there is uncertainty.
Defence has so often been the basis on which Mourinho’s most successful sides were built. But despite spending in excess of £30m on each of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, there is little suggestion that United have found the centre-back partnership that can carry them to glory. Harry Maguire is now a target but is he really in the same bracket as Toby Alderweireld or, dare it to be said, Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk?
It is now over five years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired but it is not inconceivable that Mourinho could again rely on a back four comprised entirely of Scot’s signings – Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and 33-year-old Ashley Young. Energy in the full-back areas still looks to be a key differential between United and their top-six rivals.
Mourinho is still searching for the right blend in the middle of the pitch too. Maximising the talents of Pogba remains a priority but his role has been a source of tension between player and manager. Perhaps the signing of Fred will help to ensure everything falls into place but the age profile of United’s other midfielders means that decline is as likely as progress.
Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini will both be the wrong side of 30 when the season starts. Ander Herrera is only one year younger than them. Alexis Sanchez is another who turns 30 during the season, further underlining the fact that the time is now for this squad. Sanchez must surely improve on a return of three goals in 18 games last season.
There is greater hope that Lukaku can kick on after an encouraging first year at Old Trafford. He will be the central figure in attack but will need support from elsewhere. Can Marcus Rashford and the apparently unsettled Anthony Martial be the ones to provide it? Supporters seem rather more convinced of that than the manager himself.
That is the crux of it. It is, of course, possible to put a more positive spin on things. Despite Mourinho’s fears, the fixture list has been relatively kind in the first few weeks of the season. United do not play away against a top-six rival until the other side of the October international break. The opportunity is there to build some momentum.
But Mourinho does not seem to see it that way. He sees a situation that means putting his trust in Luke Shaw to deliver. It means putting his trust in Martial too. The signs are that he is not comfortable with that and the message is being sent loud and clear to supporters that he is up against it. He is downplaying expectations before the season has even begun.
Mourinho will be acutely aware that this is a massive year for him and the club, one that will shape how his time at United is perceived. The first season began and ended with trophy celebrations and included a League Cup win in the middle. Failure to deliver silverware second time around was tolerated on the basis of progression in the league.
It is a bit different now. The owners may be content with a top-four finish but supporters will want more. “There is a gap between our true potential and the expectations we create,” said Mourinho back in March 2017. “That gap is the most difficult thing.” The biggest fear at Manchester United right now is that it’s a gap that’s growing rather than closing.