Cristiano Ronaldo couldn't hide his frustration as Manchester United began their Premier League season with a shock 2-1 loss at home.
United players trudged off the London Stadium at the weekend, heads down after West Ham inflicted a third loss in only seven games for Jose Mourinho’s team.
In what can be only described as a listless performance, West Ham out-worked a Manchester United team that failed to perform. It showcased the mental fragility that has hindered them in the early part of the season.
The calls for Mourinho to be sacked will only be heightened after this defeat as United matched their worst start to a Premier League season, a record which occurred in 2013-14 under David Moyes. This loss though is tinged with a sadder demise as the surrounding infighting between Mourinho and Paul Pogba as well as the blind transfer policy led by Ed Woodward has left United in disarray.
United through history have provided teams and managers that have encouraged attacking enterprising football from Busby’s Babes to Sir Alex Ferguson. The fabric of United was lived out through these managerial figures and teams wherein, ‘the theatre of dreams’, encapsulated a club which caught the imagination of its vast fan base.
Iconic figures from George Best to Eric Cantona to more recently Cristiano Ronaldo have lit up Old Trafford through the freedom and unpredictability of their play.
This imagination though has been lost from the current United team which plays with fear and a structure which stifles the individual talents within the squad. Mourinho must take the blame for this loss of confidence as he is responsible for instilling a belief and style that encourages the talents and strengths of his players.
The bond Mourinho used to carry with his players seems to have been lost and is echoed in this famous quote by legendary basketball coach John Wooden, “A good coach can change a game; a great coach can change a life”.
Mourinho forged a relationship with his players far beyond the football pitch. This was highlighted after Inter Milan’s treble winning season and the tearful embrace between Mourinho and Marco Materazzi after Mourinho announced he would be leaving the club.
Mourinho’s demeanour has dramatically deteriorated as the joy and exuberance that once endeared him to the media has now been replaced by a sceptical and joyless character. Mourinho seemingly is more interested in creating division within the Manchester United organisation as opposed to unification.
Throughout pre-season his constant criticism of a board and Ed Woodward for their lack of support in the transfer window covered over the fact that Mourinho has spent over $300million since taking over.
Mourinho’s relationship with his players has also seemed to have reached a breaking point as his constant criticism of individuals has failed to inspire or drive his team to the levels expected at Manchester United. The lack of improvement within the squad has also been pointed to especially through the performances of Alexis Sanchez and stagnation of young talents in Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
The criticism of Mourinho though is only part of the issue at United as was reiterated by club icon Gary Neville who said “It’s not the manager it’s the lack of football leadership above him. They are bouncing over the place with no plan”. Chief Executive Ed Woodward seems more concerned with the profits and turnover of the club rather than results on the pitch and has publicly echoed this sentiment.
United’s transfer policy has also been poorly executed with money spent on players that are just not good enough for the United badge. Alexis Sanchez who was seen as a massive coup for the club after rejecting Manchester City, has proved to be an expensive flop while Mourinho signings in Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly have never truly settled.
The players through all of this must also take responsibility for their individual performances as no one player is bigger than Manchester United. The lack of leadership within the squad though has been highlighted through the players inability to forge a unity on the field.
The toxic environment that has been created around the team must dissipate first before United are able to take positive steps forward.
Through history United has established a clear identity which has kept them at the top of the English and European game. This identity though has now been lost through a manager whose own ego has highlighted his inability to progress as a manger and explore new ideas.
Football is a game which needs to be played with love and imagination. Until Mourinho and United rediscover this, the club will continue to slip further behind the progressive movement of football. Maybe we are witnessing something more complex than the darkening of a single identity.