All around Manchester United right now, there is just a sense of frustrated stagnation, as the manager’s approach plays into, and as his very situation reflects. There is no longer immediate pressure on Jose Mourinho’s job, and that will likely remain the case until Champions League qualification is impossible, even if there is a growing feeling he could go at the end of the season either way.
There is a wider context here, too, that is not just related to the dysfunctional football structure of the club. Rather, it could yet change that. While United’s general policy since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement has been inserting clauses around Champions League qualification, and waiting until they cannot be met before taking what amount to financial decisions regarding pay-offs, it may now feed into something bigger.
The club were suddenly more parsimonious in the market this summer, and are unlikely to spend in January, with many at Old Trafford now believing this plays into widespread talk the Glazers will indeed eventually sell to Saudi Arabian investors for £4bn.
That story really hasn’t gone away.
It all just means the team itself doesn’t really know whether they’re coming or going. Look at their league position. They have not won for three matches, and yet have actually gone up the table slightly, just because of the attritional levelling out of the Premier League beyond the wealth of the big six.
They’re also only eight points off fourth because Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal happened to play on Sunday. Had Spurs been playing one of the other 13, and won in the way that would have been predicted, that gap would be 11.
But up next for United? That Arsenal who so steamrollered Spurs, meaning the gap could well be 11 by Wednesday night.
And if the wider situation means there isn’t quite pressure on Mourinho as regards his immediate employment, there is still a great pressure in terms of status and perception - something he has always felt more keenly than anything else in the sport.
This is why he has been lashing out at the team, and why he so viciously berated Paul Pogba after the tepid 2-2 draw to Southampton, reportedly describing him as “a virus”. At the same time, many at the club say the Pogba situation is one of the few where they would have some sympathy with Mourinho.
The midfielder is just seen as self-indulgent, and there was yet more eyes rolled about his conduct recently when his hairdresser turned up at the team hotel.
And yes, Pogba’s care for his hair may be such a lazy and predictable element to criticise him for, but it does literally make him all the more conspicuous when he is playing so lazily and predictably on the pitch. Mourinho is also now said to be at a loss as to how to deal with the French international and get the better of him, and actually texted club officials to complain that he has tried everything to no avail, from the conciliatory to the hardline.
There is a problem there.
The long-term question, however, is how much of that problem comes from the fact that - as with a few of his signings, not least Alexis Sanchez - Mourinho’s United system has bizarrely never been set to actually properly fit such players.
Nothing really fits, so nothing really works and - as some of the stats about intensity from the weekend indicated - nobody even really runs.
Contrast that to the team they’re playing on Wednesday. After just a few months, Unai Emery has Arsenal looking so cohesive, so integrated… so impressively slick. They’re often a joy to watch.
That wasn’t always completely the case during an early winning run that did look slightly deceptive, but they’ve now offered two big performances in their last two big-six games. It shows there is a real substance there, a substance that has all but disappeared from United, especially in that porous defence that has amazingly left them with a negative goal difference.
The resurgence of late October and early November now looks no more than a mirage. But that is also the one tangible source of hope.
United had looked in worse situations this season, and in bigger games like those against Chelsea or Juventus, and offered a response.
They need one now. They need some activity. They just need a bit of life again, a sense they’re going somewhere.
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