After the turmoil that dominated the days leading up to the international break, attempts have been made to clear the air at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground. There has been serious discussion among chief figures, in hopes of resetting the season and removing the cloud that has enveloped the club.
From club officials to the manager, players and beyond, reputations have been battered due to the team’s poor form, which has seen them lose three of their opening eight Premier League games and suffer elimination at the hands of Championship side Derby in the Carabao Cup.
If things do not improve then Jose Mourinho will lose his job, but he is not giving up — he has even been seen cracking a smile at times — and he does not want his players to, either. Moreover, he has support from fans at matches; he will need it in the weeks ahead.
Mourinho’s old club Chelsea await on Saturday — United have an appalling recent record at Stamford Bridge of one draw and seven defeats in their last eight visits — before Juventus visit Old Trafford in the Champions League three days later.
The games are undoubtedly the most difficult fixtures of the season so far and further tough games will follow on their heels. Any fragile confidence that came from the comeback win over Newcastle could be shattered, but that result could also prove to be a turning point and lead to a fresh start, especially given expectations are low.
Mourinho is under serious pressure and has been unhappy for some time, but he is also capable of incredible gestures. In August, when contacted by the family of a seriously ill Swiss fan, he realised that he would soon be in Switzerland for a UEFA coaches conference and promised to personally visit. Sadly, the patient passed away before it happened, but Mourinho still insisted on meeting his family.
He is not as miserable as is sometimes portrayed, but nor is he consistent with players. He feels they could and should be playing better, while they are of the opinion that he does not need to battle with them so often, something he has done since taking the job in 2016, complaining privately from day one that things are not as good as they should be.
Mourinho wants people with him 100 percent and do things his way. If they do, he thinks he will lead them to glory. Sir Alex Ferguson had a similar “all or nothing” mindset, but that usually came from a position of strength, not when the team were in mid-table.
It is fine to create an “us against the world” mentality if there is unity among “us,” but if the boss is at loggerheads with too many, he is going to struggle. Players have more power and money than ever before and, if push comes to shove, it is easier to get rid of a manager.
Mourinho might be irritated by comments from former players, but most do not want him to be sacked. Paul Scholes, for example, wants the manager to turn things around because he is a United fan.
“I hope the situation is retrievable,” Scholes told ESPN. “I’d like Jose to show people why he’s such a great coach, because this is his biggest test in football. Is it possible? I don’t know.”
Most fans are doubtful. When United went from so bad to so good under Ferguson in the late 1980s, it took three years. Mourinho finished second last season, which was a fine achievement, but to finish lower or to do worse than reach the Round of 16 in Europe this term will be seen as a step back.
United do not want to be seen as a sacking club; it is expensive for the cost-conscious Glazer family, for one thing. Mourinho’s predecessors Louis van Gaal and David Moyes were not fired as kneejerk reactions to individual results, but only when it was impossible to qualify for the Champions League and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward had established that players felt things were not working.
Having been outplayed by the likes of Derby, Wolves and West Ham, it looked like the wheels were coming off when Newcastle took a 2-0 lead inside 10 minutes on Oct. 6, but then came a response that resulted in victory. United need to show more of that spirit and it is not like the squad lacks talent.
Fewer than six months ago, a similar comeback sealed a win that ensured Manchester City had to cancel their title-winning party, but United are too inconsistent, not only from game to game but within matches. The league table does not lie and, while the season is only eight games young, the rest of the big six are at least five points better off.
Thursday’s announcement that Luke Shaw has signed a new contract is another positive, as is news he is back in training after missing England duty with an ankle injury. The same goes for out-of-form Nemanja Matic, who had a similar problem, while Marouane Fellaini is also expected to be fit. None of United’s other expected starters are unavailable.
After a two-week hiatus that came at the right time, Mourinho and Co. return to the spotlight and the glare will be as strong as ever. Starting on Saturday at an unhappy hunting ground, positive results are needed to ensure tension does not return.