Manchester United crisis deepens with West Ham United loss giving Jose Mourinho worst start since David Moyes
Paul Pogba is substituted off as another loss on the pitch highlights the money wasted and skewed priorities off it for the world’s biggest football club
Nine games into their football season and Manchester United are experiencing significant problems. Jose Mourinho’s incoherent side slipped to tenth in the Premier League after defeat at West Ham on Saturday. United are already nine points behind their biggest rivals, Premier League leaders Liverpool and Manchester City. Chelsea are seven ahead of the 20-time English champions.
It’s United’s worst league start since David Moyes’ five years ago. His side faced City, Liverpool and Chelsea in those opening matches, Mourinho’s have been beaten by Brighton, Tottenham, West Ham and outplayed by Wolves in their opening seven.
Moyes’ United also beat Liverpool in the League Cup. Mourinho’s men, in contrast, lost to second tier Derby.
You have to go back to 1989-90, when United finished 13th, to find a worst league start for United. A miserable Mourinho lowered rather than raised expectations pre-season, but it’s still baffling why a team of United’s talent is so poor, so clunky and lacking any obvious style of play.
There’s no significant injury list, yet the club is enveloped by daily negative headlines. Paul Pogba, the club’s most talented player when he plays well, has twice been offered to Barcelona in the last ten weeks – but not by United who don’t want to sell him. On both occasions, the Catalans declined because of the likely high transfer fee and wages.
Barça, the only football team with a higher wage bill than United, are attempting to cut costs. Pogba does have some admirers among Barça’s decision makers, while others struggle to see how he’ll fit into their finely tuned system.
Pogba, who received some ironic cheers from the travelling United fans when he was substituted on Saturday, would not be amenable to a move if he was happy at United.
The French World Cup winner maintains he’ll always give 100 per cent for United, would like the team to play more attacking football and is very popular with the younger members of the dressing room. Mourinho isn’t, but then he’s the man cracking the whip to try and get them firing.
United’s owners, the American Glazer family, haven’t been popular with supporters since their highly leveraged 2005 takeover, which still carries a debt of £496 million.
The club have paid out £784 million, part of that servicing the debt, in the last nine years, more than they’ve spent on players, yet United’s appeal is so vast that they still earn enough to be profitable and boast the largest turnover in world football.
While that happens, do United even need to win trophies for their investors? Now, the club talk of social media reach and interactions.
Fans celebrate the brief hit of a big name signing with the sort of fervour that used to be seen while winning trophies, though one wonders how much long term thinking went into the signing of Alexis Sanchez et al. United have pursued a galacticos-lite policy, big names with big international reputations like Angel di Maria, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Pogba, Sanchez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic with mixed results. That policy failed at Madrid in 2003 and it failed in Manchester over a decade later, though Mourinho did well in his first season, winning the League Cup and the Europa League.
Like Madrid, United are a loved and loathed behemoth who plough their own vast furrow regardless of results. Except Madrid win the trophies to match their status, while United flounder and frustrate.
Fans knew there would be a hangover after 26 years under the all-conquering, all-controlling, unifying boss Sir Alex Ferguson. Now, there are disparate – and desperate – messages from the leading executives, manager and players. United appear anything but.
In the recent past, a get out of jail card to lift the mood has been in the transfer market, but here there has been such a high number of failures that even signing Lionel Messi would be met with scepticism. Fine players mysteriously become average ones within months of arriving in Manchester.
Yet the worldwide interest is so vast the club has effectively become a media company which sells rights for television and sponsorship. So as long as they reach the Uefa Champions League and take their share of the Premier League broadcasting millions, the club can grow its revenues.
Further growth comes from finding new distribution channels and thinking of new sponsorship opportunities – the sleeve sponsor this year became the latest, though the club didn’t get close to what they were hoping – and improving existing deals.
United are ahead of the rest commercially, but behind in the area which matters most to fans – on the pitch.
When a football club struggles, it’s usually the manager who pays the price with his job. Mourinho looks beleaguered, under heavy pressure and in need of help. He’s used deflection tactics, yet he’s the boss of a group of players who are underperforming.
Ask United’s vast online following and they’d be shot of the manager immediately – as they would have done with almost every player to represent the club at some point. Mourinho gets more support at games, but nobody pretends the football is exciting. He wanted more players in the summer, specifically a central defender, yet he’s overseen £300 million of signings in two years and bought two central defenders for £30 million each.
There are divisions which show little sign of healing. They’ve been there in the background since the start of 2018 and they’re now firmly in the foreground. No one person is solely to blame, but United have become a sorry, energy-sapping mess of negativity, their legend betrayed by incompetence, ego and greed.