United fans of the past three decades have enjoyed a pretty good life, what with Sir Alex Ferguson sweeping aside all that stood before him, conquering both England and Europe with a swagger that garnered as much ire as it did admiration.
He built and re-built teams that were as dynamic as they were dominant, familiarising Manchester United fans with success. Success that many of them hadn’t witnessed since the heyday of Sir Matt Busby.
So, it’s with the last 25+ years in mind that Manchester United fans have had to temper their expectations. David Moyes floundered beneath a deluge of expectation; Louis van Gaal — despite winning the FA Cup — alienated supporters with his stagnant brand of possession football; and so, following these disappointments, faith was placed in a man who had long coveted the head role at Old Trafford.
The thing is, in spite of all his undoubted brilliance, José Mourinho hasn’t exactly restored the club to its winning ways.
There is certainly an arrogance about United fans — even being a fervent one myself — that demands success, as if it is some God-given right, rather than earned through graft, guile and sheer bloody-mindedness.
With Mourinho, there is the expectation success will follow, especially when the club shells out in excess of £130 million in transfer fees for some of the footballing world’s most promising names.
But with United stuttering through an indifferent start to the season, what’s missing? With the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Mata and De Gea, Mourinho has a glittering squad at his disposal, yet this behemoth of a club languishes in 7th place, having been soundly beaten by Chelsea, outplayed in the Manchester derby and staunchly boring the entire of Merseyside to death.
First off — play people in their actual positions
As anyone who’s played football to any half-decent level will testify, attuning your game to a host of different positions is tricky. Sure, there are the gifted few for whom versatility is second nature, but understanding the tactical and positional differences of a winger and a striker take time to comprehend.
And that’s going some way to explaining United’s sheer lack of both excitement and proficiency this season.
It may be a sign of the lack of genuinely talented wingers in the squad, but sticking Marcus Rashford out on the flanks is doing nobody any favours. With his fearless nature and direct running, the last place you want the young England star is 30 yards from goal and approaching the byline rapidly. The same goes for Anthony Martial.
Their frightening pace would be far better serviced through the middle, but not necessarily at Ibrahimovic’s expense. Late on in games, tired legs are going to have a hell of a time keeping up with Rashford and Martial.
Concerning the wide areas, United have a man in Henrik Mkhitaryan who was at the top of his game last season; drifting in off the right-wing to register 11 goals and 15 assists in the Bundesliga as Dortmund finished runners-up.
But it seems as though this United squad has an abundance of talent, all of whom want to play in that coveted ‘number 10’ role — Rooney, Mata, Pogba — and who are similarly bringing a distinct lack of balance to the side.
Let’s take Paul Pogba. Undoubtedly he possesses a wealth of talent, but he has the positional awareness of a man registered blind. His inclusion in the side warrants a solid base in midfield, potentially robbing the side of creativity going forward. There’s no scope to play Pogba in a midfield two — he too often leaves his partner woefully exposed.
Which brings us neatly onto the next point:
Mourinho needs to establish his first-choice XI — quickly
Unfortunately for United fans, Mourinho has too often got his starting XI and tactical set-up completely wrong for the big games.
Struggling to piece together the jigsaw of how the fuck you fit Paul Pogba in this United side, Mourinho has frequently opted for the lumbering figure of Marouane Fellaini in centre midfield. A curious charge when you consider the big Belgian’s talents as a footballer: he can head the ball. Aaaaand that’s about it.
In years gone past, United have dominated the English and, to a lesser extent, the European scenes thanks in no small part to their strength in centre midfield. Keane, Scholes, Butt, Carrick, Ince would all walk into today’s side without a concern.
But if you insist on playing Pogba, who anchors the midfield? Do you entrust the energetic and criminally-underrated Ander Herrera, sacrificing his creative instincts in the name of solidarity? Or do you trust in Michael Carrick who, although is certainly into the winter of his career, has a proven time and time again he has the ability to dictate play from the centre of the park.
And what of Morgan Schneiderlin? The aggressive ball-winner seems to have been entirely overlooked alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger when both can offer more consistency in the centre of the pitch that Fellaini.
But that’s not the only area of the pitch Mourinho is struggling with. The right-back berth seems to have been filled, albeit we pray only temporarily, by Antonio Valencia; a man whose ability to defend is less compelling than his attempts to speak English. So many times the Ecuadorian is caught out by even the merest hint of intelligence in an opposition winger; sure, most won’t beat him for pace, but the man doesn’t seem to know what offside is!
Similarly, Mourinho’s proclivity for playing Young and Lingard in important fixtures beggars belief. These are two men who epitomise one of the bleakest problems that English football is facing: we seem to appreciate a lack of actual footballing talent as long as it is compensated for by a willingness to “put a shift in”.
Since when did top-level international footballers rely solely on their ability to work hard? Carlos Tevez works bloody hard, but he’s also a terrific goal threat to boot; the same goes for Luis Suarez, who never gives defenders a moment’s rest. Cafu would steam up and down Brazil’s right flank in the 90s, yet he could cross a ball like no one’s business and tackle like a bull.
Panicking is going to help absolutely no one
Football fans are fickle, and perhaps none more so than Manchester United fans, many of whom expected a continuation of the club’s phenomenal success once Fergie had waved a fond farewell in 2013.
Moyes’ head was called for extremely early on, while van Gaal hardly lasted much longer before the masses turned against him. Already there are rumblings of disquiet amongst the United faithful who seem to have once again rolled out that old chestnut “playing the United way”.
Well, what is the United way? Rampaging wingers and an attitude that boldly proclaims, “You score four, we’ll score five”? See how far that gets you against Barcelona! The modern game is changing and so is the entire landscape of football.
Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the last old-school managers, who ruled the club from top to bottom, and in José Mourinho, United, at least, have a man of similar ilk. Players desire to play for him; they want to impress him. And that’s what the club needs.
Scholes, Giggs, the Nevilles, Keane — all players for whom playing for Manchester United meant something. United fans were blessed indeed to witness such a crop of players come through their club at one time, and it’s a feat that will likely never be repeated, but United still possess the tools to re-establish themselves at the pinnacle of the game.
This season has been lukewarm to say the least, but it has produced moments of startling potential. So despite the current lowly state of affairs United find themselves in, with City dropping points, Chelsea’s slow start still hampering them and Liverpool’s complete inability to beat anyone in the bottom five a title challenge really isn’t that far off.