At Huish Park a couple of weeks ago, Jose Mourinho was taken aback by the revelation that the game marked his 100th as manager of Manchester United. Time does really fly. In the said 100 games, Mourinho has scored a winning rate of 62%. Decent, you might say, especially considering that defeat at Wembley against Spurs last week was only the 16th time in all competitions that United have lost a game under the manager.
Perspective holds that an evaluation of Jose Mourinho’s performance so far must take into account United’s plight and position before the Portuguese assumed control of the first team. After 26 league games in the last three seasons, United averaged 35 goals and 44 points. The report card at the same stage this season reads 51 goals, 56 points. United are on course to finish beyond the 80 point mark this season even if it still won’t deliver the title.
Jose Mourinho has been candid enough to acknowledge that City deserve the praise for their points haul this season but equally mindful of the reality that in any other season, United’s points haul so far would have them within five points of the leaders as opposed to the 13.
In the 18 months in the job so far, Jose has added eight new players to the squad and let 12 go. That is less than half the number of signings Pep has been afforded at City. Crucially, a United first team that included Schneiderlin, Depay and a rapidly declining Wayne Rooney, now boasts of the talents of Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku—all upgrades!
In all the four seasons since Sir Alex departed, United have failed to make a top three finish with one maiden appearance in the top four. This season, Jose is primed to guide the club to second place, a marked improvement from last season, considering that less than 8 months ago, the club was only as good as 6th best in the country. Indeed, it is this progress with the promise of further success that has seen the owners reward the manager with a new contract to take the club through 2020.
Whilst the improvement has not gone unnoticed, expectations of wining the title in the short-term continue to grow. These expectations are currently hamstrung by an uncertainty over the personnel and formation of what we can universally claim to be our first team. This conundrum of sorts heavily revolves around Paul Pogba. Given the investment in the Frenchman, it squarely falls on the manager to work out a system that allows the club to get the best out of their prize asset. The irony around it all is that after a stellar season at Juventus where Pogba excelled on the left of a midfield three, Didier Deschamps unsuccessfully tried him in a two in midfield for France at the Euros. It is an experiment that continues to fail at Manchester United except that both managers for club and country already have workable templates to solve the issue.
At United, Pogba’s best games have often come in a three-man midfield, especially so, away from home. His free spirit on the ball essentially makes it difficult for him to follow the rigid script demanded from a holding position. This has recently caused a perceived ‘rift’ between player and manager and caused the former to be dropped for the weekend game against Huddersfield Town. Nothing that the transfer window can’t solve though. Ultimately, the solution seems to point to an eventual shift to a 4-3-3 system. But that is for the manager to work out.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the current squad is that United are regularly able to field six or seven players from the Sir Alex Ferguson era. At Burnley the other week United’s defence alone was entirely comprised of players Sir Alex signed. De Gea, Young, Smalling, Jones, Valencia. Expectation is that over the next couple of transfer windows, the defence shall be the focus, in terms of improving the personnel but more importantly finding replacements for those getting on a bit in terms of age. United’s excellent defensive stats are borne of a defensive effort by the sum of the parts as opposed to individual brilliance of the available personnel. Whilst that has come at cost in terms of attacking prowess, it is just as well so because the team remains of fragile levels of confidence in situations of adversity.
It was astonishing for the manager to reveal that conceding after 10 seconds at Wembley against Spurs ‘killed’ the confidence of the team. That United have hardly won a premier league game after going behind means that confidence remains the hardest aspect about post-Sir Alex United to rebuild. It has soared in games that United have led but is all too quickly lost when the team is experiencing adversity. For heads to drop with 90 minutes still available on the clock is a far cry from the team that kept plugging away with 90 seconds left!
If and when Jose works out a restoration job on the aforementioned aspects, United should be able to look back on the next 100 with much greater satisfaction. So far, the overriding feeling after the first 100 is that United are moving in the right direction. Lest we forget that for all the praise going to one corner of Manchester, United are still the only ones with trophies to show for the past 18 months!