Manchester United have had a tumultuous spell over the last six weeks. From the moment they landed in Los Angeles for their US tour without a host of first-team players, Jose Mourinho’s mood has been far from positive and that has also been reflected in their fortunes on the field to this point.
There appears to be a blame game developing, with various groups of fans and pundits having made up their minds who is culpable for the current mess as United prepare for a huge Premier League fixture against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on Monday. While Mourinho himself has been singled out by some as the main culprit, the likes of executive vice-chair Ed Woodward and the club-owning Glazer family have also been identified as the guilty party.
And what of the players, whose lacklustre performance at Brighton last weekend suggested that the bad vibes have permeated into the on-field staff as well.
So exactly who should be carrying the can for the current malaise in M16?
Jose Mourinho’s characteristics were hardly unknown when he arrived at Old Trafford in 2016. He had long since become known for a spiky management style, a win-at-all-costs mentality which didn’t sit within the usual boundaries of what Manchester United as an institution regards as acceptable.
His frequent run-ins with opposition managers and officials, his eye-gouge of the late Tito Vilanova, the way he had fallen out with, and lost the respect of, his players at Real Madrid and Chelsea… there were many examples to cite when building a case as to why Mourinho’s sheen of invincibility might have worn off.
And his spell at the Theatre of Dreams has only magnified such issues. He has almost ruined Luke Shaw in public over the last two years, undermined the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial, belittled Paul Pogba and made his dissatisfaction with the board known on more than one occasion after they failed to deliver the players he demanded in the transfer market. He even bemoaned the need to take a group of promising youngsters on tour with him this summer and immediately excluded them from his plans by saying they “are not my players”.
All the while his approach to the football has drawn as many groans as cheers. The decision to send out his side in an ultra-defensive style for the home derby against Manchester City last term lost him any credibility with some fans, while others can’t wait to see the back of him after two years of safety-first football.
Ed Woodward took the reins of the business side at Old Trafford in the summer of 2013 after David Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson retired within weeks of each other and he has found the going tough ever since.
While the former accountant has taken the club to a new level in commercial terms, with around 80 major partnerships now boasted as opposed to around a tenth of that figure five years ago, he has overseen a downturn in performances on the pitch and has done little to suggest he shares the concerns of fans regarding their lack of attraction in their football these days.
“Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial size of the business,” he explained in a call with shareholders earlier this year and that sort of attitude has done little to win him friends among the fan base. One group of supporters has even paid for a plane to be flown over Turf Moor when United face Burnley next Saturday displaying the message “Ed Out – LUHG” (Love United, Hate Glazer)
Having been an advisor to the Glazer family in their infamous takeover of the club in 2005, he remains a key asset to them in their business operation. But he has not enjoyed the most fruitful of relationships with Mourinho thus far, and, while reports of a complete rift have been denied recently, there is clearly a bridge needing to be built between them if all parties are to remain unscathed over the coming months and United are to move forward as a club any time soon.
His side of the story regarding the stunted summer transfer campaign included a number of suggestions that Mourinho is untrustworthy with the club’s money, but yet Woodward has not made the decision to find a manager in whom he has more faith. Quite what his next step will be is anyone’s guess, and whether his motives are more commercial than performance-based is of great concern to the fan base.
The arrival of the Glazer family in 2005 was one of the most contentious episodes in Manchester United’s long history. Their purchase of the club was comprised of loans secured against the club’s assets at huge rates of interest cost the company £525 million plus interest and United remain in debt to the tune of £301.3m as of March 31, 2018.
While Sir Alex Ferguson defended the Glazers’ role at the club, the spell since the Scot retired as manager has exemplified the issue many fans had with the takeover in the first place. While the club continues to grow off the field thanks to Woodward’s commercial wizardry, the football seems to be of less concern to the owners.
Their appointment of Woodward as executive vice-chair was a sign of their desire to make the most of the club as a profit-making entity, and the lack of a football-savvy sporting director or CEO to this point has also been identified as a point of great concern to success-starved supporters. The ‘Love United Hate Glazer’ movement, which has seen United’s gold-and-green colours from the early days of Newton Heath worn prevalently in the stands at Old Trafford, continues.
Many fans also see the appointment of Mourinho in 2016 as having been a nod to the need for blockbuster names and big commercial appeal rather than a decision made in consideration of the needs on a sporting level. Next Saturday’s plane protest is just the latest evidence that the fan base’s patience is wearing thin with the ownership regardless of opinion on the manager, with the need to pay off the Glazers’ debt considered one of the factors preventing United from making their financial power felt on the football pitch.
Regardless of the issues at boardroom and management level, there is a feeling that many players are letting themselves down too. Last Sunday’s 3-2 loss at Brighton was notable for the lack of cohesion between a side showing very few changes from last season’s squad.
Paul Pogba has becoming the lightning rod for criticism thanks to his £89.5m price tag – a former world-record fee – and his extrovert nature, and some have used his improved performances with France on the way to winning the World Cup as another stick with which to beat him rather than evidence that there is a disconnect elsewhere in his club setup.
United playing like strangers goes way beyond one player, and after a summer of discontent for a variety of reasons it appears to have affected the squad in a mental capacity. While the Brighton result counts for only 2.6 per cent of their Premier League campaign it spoke of wider issues at play, and the performance in the 2-1 win over Leicester the previous week was barely more convincing. Their manager’s demeanour over the last six weeks will not have helped, but where is the drive to overcome obstacles and get on with the job?
And while changes elsewhere at the club may eventually give them more freedom to display the best side of themselves, as professionals and proud people it is fair to expect them to deliver better than they have given of late. Why did Anthony Martial not snatch the chance that was handed to him with a rare start? What was the reason for Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof switching off so readily? Or for David de Gea to plant his midfielders in trouble with dangerous passes? And why did Pogba misplace a number of easy passes?
As the ambassadors of the club who head out every week in full view of everyone, they are constantly the most overt expression of the mood at Manchester United. Only when they are expressing themselves as they can will the spotlight on others at Old Trafford begin to fade.