It is Groundhog Day again at Manchester United, whose fans are again fuming after another poor display and poor result at Southampton. The Saints are 18th, earned their only Premier League game of the season on Sep. 1 and, since Saturday, have sacked manager Mark Hughes.
With two points from the last three games, things are getting worse at Old Trafford as the gap continues to widen between Jose Mourinho’s side and the league’s leading clubs. Fourth-placed Arsenal are the visitors on Wednesday and, if they pick up a rare win at United’s home, there will be a revolt among fans.
The mood at matches has soured in noticeably recent weeks. Supporters were fighting among themselves in another sell-out away end at Southampton, with bitter difference of opinions between those who feel that you should support the team during games and those who believe they are entitled to voice their disapproval after travelling five hours to witness another inept performance.
This is turning into a horror season. It could be saved — United could win the Champions League, just as they won the League Cup and Europa League to Jose Mourinho’s first campaign — but, while the manager should get credit for qualifying from a tough group with a game to spare, nobody thinks they are watching the European Cup winners-elect.
The manager is partly to blame for the team’s woes but so too are his players and the finger should also be pointed at the club’s star-struck, failing transfer policy.
United paid £52 million in the summer for Fred, who has started six out of 14 league games. Paul Pogba cost even more than that two years ago but his relationship with Mourinho is fractured and has been throughout 2018. The manager feels that he has to play the club’s most expensive signing, regardless of form, and Pogba often does not play well, which is a shame given his talent.
Despite having the league’s most-expensive striker in Romelu Lukaku, not enough goals are being scored. At the other end, too many have been conceded. It is implausible that United have a negative goal difference over a third of the way into the season, but the table does not lie.
It is true that things have been much worse. Last week, I met the son of former United captain Bill McKay who, in 1934, played in a must-win game vs. Millwall to avoid relegation to England’s third tier. Hoping for a change to the bad fortune that had dogged them all season, the players discarded their famous red jerseys and instead wore cherry-and-white hoops. The plan worked: United won 2-0 and never wore the kit again.
And let us not forget that United were relegated to the second division six years after winning the 1968 European Cup. These things do happen and are what make sport so engaging, but it is baffling how such a powerful and commercially-successful club is languishing 16 points behind Manchester City and 14 in arrears of Liverpool after only 14 matches.
What happens next? There is no obvious way to get out of this mess. A sporting director has been mooted, but Mourinho is reluctant to accept one. Such a set-up was not what he was sold when he signed took charge in 2016, nor when he extended his deal at the start of this year. He wants control over signings because he knows he will bear the criticism if they, like many of their predecessors, do not work out.
New faces could arrive in January and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodard was with agents after last week’s home win against Young Boys, but it is difficult to get top players from clubs who do not want or need to sell midway through a season.
Recruiting new players was long seen as a get-out card, but gone are the days when United could sign Robin van Persie from Arsenal, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Carrick from Tottenham, Andy Cole from Newcastle, Rio Ferdinand from Leeds and Wayne Rooney from Everton. The power of the rest of the Premier League is a problem; Leicester did not need to sell Harry Maguire, for example.
Also at issue are clubs with vast financial resources like Manchester City and Chelsea, who have used their money well. Arsenal and Liverpool pay their own way, but their own successes in the transfer market is a further indictment of United’s failures.
As for making a managerial change, United remain reluctant to sack anyone while the team is still in the Champions League and still in contention to qualify for next season’s competition. Further, Mourinho has a heavily incentivised contract — as do the players — and would be cheaper to dismiss if the club fail to make it in to Europe’s top competition.
The club remains powerful and is still a commercial trailblazer. Alexis Sanchez and Fred chose the red side of Manchester over the city’s blue half, but while United was once an enticing guarantor of trophies, now the main attraction is a vast salary and increased social media profile.
Dec. 2 last year saw United go to Arsenal and win 3-1, a result that marked one of the high points in Mourinho’s Old Trafford. Some 368 days later, victory for a Gunners side buoyant after their impressive North London derby win against Tottenham will mark its lowest ebb.