Jose Mourinho, Paul Pogba or Ed Woodward – Manchester United fans don’t know who to believe after Brighton humiliation
Manager, captain and board point fingers but supporters unsure who’s at fault as pitiful Brighton capitulation shatters optimism for Premier League season
The early arrivals were in a Wetherspoons pub at half nine on Sunday morning as seagulls pecked at the detritus of stag and hen parties in one of Brighton’s scruffiest streets.
Manchester United fans from everywhere began to meet and greet.
There were Manchester men and the London lads – the Cockney Reds – standing talking as numbers swelled. There were long-standing fans from Norway, from towns all over England too. None wore any colours that might identity them. These hardcore fans pride themselves on going to games and have little time for any always-angry online ranters.
Match going away fans are a minority and England’s football authorities care little for them, for if they did they wouldn’t have them leaving Brighton on a Sunday evening for a long trip home. Last season, United’s three furthest domestic away games were played midweek at night. Television is king, yet tickets for all were still heavily oversubscribed.
These are unsettling times for England’s biggest club, but the support stands firm – except when they feel their team has failed them. Five minutes before the end of Sunday’s Premier League match on the south coast , half the 3,000 travelling fans had left the stadium. United were losing 3-1 and had showed little fight. This didn’t look like a Manchester United team, nor was it a shock defeat in isolation. Mourinho’s side were bested by all three promoted teams last season.
The team that beat Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool lost in Huddersfield, Newcastle and Brighton, where fans again teased, “Can we play you every week?”
United fans’ natural preseason optimism quickly dissipated on England’s drizzly south coast on Sunday.
There are many questions yet few definitive answers. So much is subjective in football – except the league table. One Dutchman’s “I left this club in a better condition than when I arrived” is a Portuguese’s “the place was a mess and I needed to sort it out”.
Alex Ferguson was satisfied he’d left a team of league champions in 2013 and the club said there was little “re-tooling” needed. They can’t all be right.
United have spent more than any British team apart from City since Mourinho took charge in 2016, yet stand accused of not backing their manager.
Mourinho is right to want more players, yet he boasts a talented squad. Either they’re failing him or he’s failing them, because Sunday at Brighton was so wretchedly bad that the issues can’t seemingly be explained away as one bad result.
A pitiful first-half capitulation saw three goals conceded in 19 minutes. The defence made howling errors and despite 36 Premier League games remaining, it seems United will be playing catch up from the start.
Brighton finished 15th last season and won only nine of their 38 games. They were poor at Watford a week earlier and lost 2-0, yet they deserved to beat United, just like in May.
What can United do as their fans scream blue murder, City’s victory machine steamrollers into the distance and Liverpool entertain? Should the fans just accept that football is cyclical, that they’ve been spoiled rotten for decades? No chance.
Dismissing an unhappy manager whose contract was extended this year would hardly be a panacea. Appointed with little romance, Mourinho came in as the unanimous choice of the fans with a record as a winner. He has won has trophies and taken United to second place in the league.
Mourinho has a better win and lower loss rate than any manager in the history of United.
Fans are confused. They hear of problems but then Mourinho – under pressure from a club which continues to do more lucrative commercial deals than any in football and yet make internal cutbacks – says all is well and that it’s the media who are lying.
In an interview with the club’s in-house media on Friday he started his first two answers with “I’m really happy”.
He doesn’t look it, but the fans still want to believe in him and they want to back the club line because they want their team to do well.
Commercially, United are so successful that one wonders if they even need to win when their juggernaut always dominates the sporting media landscape.
There are millions enjoying United’s misfortune online – which means those who come to scoff inadvertently boost the brand awareness of United’s many sponsors and thus the bottom line.
United’s commercial arm is slick, successful and strategic in planning. Can the same be said of the football arm, with a less strategic approach to recruitment?
There’s a growing unease among fans who will be there long after the current manager or players have gone.
— Paul Pogba (@paulpogba) 19 August 2018
They hear the training has gone well and then United’s captain states that Brighton “prepared much better than us”.
Paul Pogba is one of the most talented footballers in the world, but he remains too inconsistent. Every footballer has bad games, every team too – but there are too many buts.
United’s line up was full of World Cup players with eight days uninterrupted training who bafflingly capitulated and missed a chance to convey relative harmony. Do they not want to play for their boss?
“Everything is good,” Mourinho said before Brighton. But it clearly isn’t and with the team not playing until next Monday when they host Tottenham Hotspur, this is going to be one long week for Manchester United.