A series of bad results leaves the new Manchester United manager with a difficult decision to make
For the first time in over a decade, Jose Mourinho has lost three games on the bounce. It’s a rare occurrence, and not just because he consistently gets results.
What makes this run even more odd is the fact that he has turned on his players so early on. He’s pinpointed Luke Shaw and Henrikh Mkhitaryan already, and it’s unlikely that he’s telling them that it’s all for show in private.
No player would be happy with being hung out to dry, and it looks like he’s shooting from the hip again and getting frustrated. Those frustrations are coming out in the typical Mourinho way, but he’s also heaping even further pressure on himself with what he’s saying.
While he’s spoken openly about some members of his squad, his main problem is actually two players who are underperforming: Paul Pogba and Wayne Rooney. He said earlier on this season that he would never play Rooney as a 6 or an 8, but he changed the system around against Watford to a 4-3-3, essentially trying to free Pogba up. It isn’t working.
When Rooney has been playing in that midfield role, he’s dropping too deep and not having an influence in the opposition’s half of the field. Everyone who has seen Rooney play over the years knows his quality, but he hasn’t been anywhere near producing his best form in the last two years.
Pogba has been a bit ill-disciplined also; he’s been the one vacating his position and leaving Marouane Fellaini and the rest of the defence exposed.
When you’ve got two players in a three-man midfield playing with that freedom, without that discipline, it puts more pressure on whoever is left behind them. Unfortunately, that player is Fellaini, someone who’s not up to the standard required for Manchester United. He hasn’t proved his level consistently enough, despite a decent start to the season, and he’s not a natural holding midfielder.
There’s no doubting that there are a lot of talented midfielders in that squad, but Mourinho has also made his bed there to a certain extent. He’s indicated that Bastian Schweinsteiger is not part of his plans, so he can’t turn to him in his hour of need. Michael Carrick would be the ideal man to play in that position - to dictate the game with the tempo of his passing - but he’s not up to the level he was a few years ago. Morgan Schneiderlin has been poor, and I don’t think he’s found any type of form since joining the team. The only candidate to come into that midfield as part of a three is Ander Herrera, but he’s not a defensive player either.
The result of that instability and lack of discipline is that the back line find themselves under even more pressure. Eric Bailly is suffering despite a promising start to the season, and actually looked really tired at the end of the derby against Manchester City. His performance against Watford wasn’t great, and he struggled with basic errors in that game.
Manchester United are not dominating the game to enough of an extent to get results, either in or out of possession. Rooney continues to be the main source of those problems in midfield, and I can’t see a solution beyond leaving him out of the side.
It’s obvious that Mourinho likes Rooney, given he tried to sign him at Chelsea, but he has to pick his battles. He needs to give Rooney the time during his reign to prove everybody else wrong. Both Mourinho and Sam Allardyce seem happy to bow to his authority for the moment, but I can’t see Jose tolerating that in the long-term.
We expected to see a bit of a spark back in him, or a response from Rooney against Watford, and it just never materialised. He’s always been all-action; wanting to have a say in the game and working all around the pitch. That catches up with every player, and the question is whether or not he can still influence games without having to do that. The way he’s playing now, he’s trying to do everything and ends up doing very little.
We’re seeing this far too regularly from a player of his calibre. Five years ago, if he wasn’t scoring, he was providing through balls at key moments in the game. We’re not seeing that now from Rooney. It looks like the end is around the corner now, and it will happen eventually.
The big decision will come four or five games from now, when Mourinho can turn back to Rooney and say: "I gave you that time to impress, and you didn’t do it."
Waiting in the wings is Marcus Rashford, and while Mourinho has perhaps been trying to protect him and not expose him to a lot of time on the pitch, he’s having a big say in games. He wants to play, he’s ready, and he’s proved it. When a player is in form, regardless of their age, you’ve got to give them that run in the side.
Equally, Pogba could play in that creative role for the side. He isn’t exactly producing either, but you’ve got to give him 10 or 15 games before you start to judge him. However, when you pay that amount of money, you’ve got to be scoring and creating opportunities, and he’s not able to do either of those things at the moment.
For now though, it looks as though Mourinho is hampering his own style for the sake of simply delaying the inevitable with Wayne Rooney.