Why Manchester United vs Burnley will prove to be a defining day for Jose Mourinho

Defeat at Turf Moor would confirm beyond doubt that United are caught in a crisis under the Portuguese

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Sunday 02 September 2018 13:29
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho reacts angrily to questions after Tottenham defeat

Around the Manchester United hierarchy, the message is still that Sunday’s match at Burnley won’t decide Jose Mourinho’s job, but the Portuguese should be well aware of how many genuinely fatal problems can be provoked from an awkward encounter against Sean Dyche’s side. And this game could still tell an awful lot either way. One of his previous encounters with the Clarets did.

Back when Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea played Burnley at home in 2014-15, they suffered one of their few poor results as a title-winning side. It was day that, rather suitably, signalled why there was going to be so many poor results in the future.

There was first of all the illustration of how Mourinho’s approach was increasingly struggling against any kind of defensive co-ordination, because of his lack of attacking co-ordination. That match was admittedly conditioned by a controversial red card for Nemanja Matic and a few other refereeing decisions, but it was the way Mourinho again dwelt on them that shaped other issues.

He was asked about it all after the game, only to obliquely respond: “There are four moments of the game where you can write the story. Minutes 30, 33, 43 and 69. Don't ask me more questions.”

It was publicly seen as a bit of pantomime mischief to deflect from slipped points at the time but, privately, the Chelsea players were becoming perturbed at how often Mourinho was engaging in this kind of thing and how “obsessed” he was with it over actual management.

By Christmas the side had cruised to the top of the table playing the expressive football that Mourinho’s laissez-faire approach to attack can allow when players are on form and in confident mood. But the manager was still not in good form himself. He begun to regularly rail against refereeing decisions and the fixture calendar more than anything else, but not just in press conferences. Mourinho started to impress on his players the need to parrot this line, to keep up the message.

Many just found it bizarre, and that was when a connection began to be broken, while others were already bristling at his hard-line man-management. That led to the squad losing confidence, and Mourinho having to defensively lock down the side to grind their way to the title. It couldn’t lock down his players, though. By the end of the season - a title-winning season at that - as many of 10 of them discussed the possibility of leaving with Chelsea’s Marina Granovskaia.

That is not the case at United now, and he still has players loyal to him in the squad, but many more than 10 are talking about whether defeat at Turf Moor - or another few in the next few games - could finally lead to Mourinho himself leaving.

Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward does want to give the Portuguese the opportunity to sort this all out, but other board figures are already concerned by the implications of defeat at Burnley.

Aside from the fact it would be three losses from the opening four games and already leave them well off the pace in the race for the top four - let alone the title - there is deeper significance to what such a setback would represent.

This goes back to 2015-16, when the old baseline resilience that normally characterises Mourinho’s sides had evaporated.

Mouriho during his Chelsea days

In that campaign, after all, the feeling was always that next week would see everything get back to normal, that the quality of a top-six side would just see everything level out. But it didn’t. It just kept getting worse.

Look, above anything, at the only teams the champions beat under Mourinho in that season: West Brom, away; Arsenal, home; Aston Villa, home; Norwich, home; Walsall, away; Maccabi Tel-Aviv, home; Dynamo Kyiv, home; Maccabi away; Porto, home.

It is a pitiful list for such a side, particularly in the league, bar the presence of Arsenal - but it’s impossible not to think that was down to the strange psychological hold Chelsea and Mourinho had over Arsene Wenger in matches.

Otherwise, it showed there were no guarantees going into any game, and that is why Sunday’s match at Burnley is almost a referendum on whether we’re about to see something similar.

Because, for United to rather meekly and pathetically lose at Brighton is still possible in a one-off game this early in the season.

To follow it with a bad defeat to another top-six side is also at least explainable, even if the fact Tottenham were themselves breaking a bad pattern at Old Trafford should itself ring alarms.

These could feasibly be just two different bad results, that came because of different reasons, but unfortunately just around the same time.

Mourinho can still turn things around at United - starting with a win against Burnley (REUTERS)

That is possible.

A setback at Burnley, however, would emphasise that such a view is probably implausible. It would prove there really are deep problems.

It actually further complicates things that Burnley themselves don’t look like the Burnley of last season.

Their short time in the Europa League has already affected them, seemingly stripping them of the energy required for the kind of focused assertiveness that fires Sean Dyche’s reactive approach.

But this is also where the crux of the game lies, where so much will be revealed.

Will United show their problems are not that bad by going to Turf Moor and dominating a newly-fragile Burnley?

Sean Dyche's Burnley, despite their form, have the potential to pull off a major upset

Or will Burnley illustrate how bad things really are by suddenly rediscovering their resilience, because they know United have more issues than them?

It is why a win for Mourinho is hugely important beyond the questions about saving his job in the immediate short term.

Three points would indicate their own resilience is still there, that there will still be a degree of normality to this season. Anything less, and this campaign could really go any way imaginable.

Because this is the greater issue. The context of that 2014-15 Burnley night not quite be the same, and it is of course not certain that this season will be exactly the same as 2015-16, but it would further display that the principle problems are identical.

It would display that there are no guarantees, and certainly not for Mourinho’s job.

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