Heading into Monday’s showdown with Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United feel like a club on the cusp of crisis. To some extent, that fear always seems to revolve around Jose Mourinho in one form or another, but United’s 3-2 defeat to relegation battlers Brighton on Sunday offered up eerie comparisons with the Portuguese’s catastrophic implosion at Chelsea, while a divisive and debasing power struggle with matchday captain Paul Pogba continues to rumble on.
One flicker of kinetic energy could be all that’s needed to set the seemingly toxic atmosphere at Old Trafford ablaze, and a loss to a key divisional rival at home would certainly provide that spark.
Amid such a backdrop, United’s defeat to Tottenham at Wembley last season suddenly takes a refreshed relevance – not least because another on bank holiday Monday, this time at Old Trafford, will inevitably heap the pressure on a manager who appears to have made enemies amongst the fan base, the dressing room and even the board.
It would also significantly dent United’s chances of not only challenging for the title this season, but even finishing inside the top four – something that worryingly feels so far from a formality, even though it should be considering the money United have spent, after an underwhelming performance against Leicester and an utterly disastrous display at the Amex Stadium last time out.
Mourinho will point to that game as a precise example of why he insists this United side continue to play with the handbrake on despite entering his third term at the helm. On the last day of January 2018, the Red Devils boss set out an ambitious and offensive side at Wembley; deviating from his usual 4-3-3 setup, Jesse Lingard took up the No.10 role in front of Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba, the England international flanked by Anthony Martial and new signing Alexis Sanchez.
For all intents and purposes, that’s three goalscorers ahead of two offensive-minded midfielders, ahead of a single anchorman in Matic.
But within seconds, United were already undone as Christian Eriksen netted in under a minute. Phil Jones failed to win a header cleanly – something Mourinho will point to as justification for his insistence on bringing in a top-class centre-back this summer – but the Dane and Dele Alli’s runs from midfield weren’t picked up either.
The England international scuffed the ball into Eriksen’s path and the playmaker converted from point-blank range to instantly put United on the back foot at Wembley. Tottenham’s second goal in the 28th minute, meanwhile, a Jones own goal that once again highlighted the lack of truly elite personnel at the back, seemed to put the game beyond doubt before it had truly got going.
Mourinho’s eventual reaction came surprisingly late from a manager once famed for making a triple substitution within half an hour, but the effects were devastating nonetheless. Having proved so positionally ill-disciplined in deep midfield alongside Matic and spent much of the match being out-muscled and outclassed by Mousa Dembele, Mourinho hauled off his world-record signing to replace him with Marouane Fellaini, a far more rudimentary midfielder but one the United boss seems to trust that little bit more.
Tellingly, Fellaini only lasted seven minutes because he wasn’t fit, at which point he was replaced by Ander Herrera, but Mourinho felt the risk was more worthwhile than keeping the most expensive acquisition of his career and United’s commercial posterboy on the pitch.
It was by no means the start of the Mourinho-versus-Pogba narrative, but it was nonetheless a moment that amplified the divisions in perception. Whereas some questioned why the costliest midfielder of all time couldn’t put in a disciplined performance in a deeper role away from home, many pointed the finger at Mourinho’s tactics, accusing him of trying to put a leash on a talent that thrives from the freedom to be inventive and failing to get the best out of a player who looked so exceptional at Juventus.
From that moment on, it has always felt as if there are two mutually exclusive schools of thought amongst United fans and pundits – Mourinho’s pragmatic, conservative thinktank and Pogba’s movement for individual self-determinism.
We’ve now reached a point where the gap between those two ways of thinking are so vast that there’s no common ground left to build a bridge on, and even if there were it’s been meticulously picked apart by Mino Raiola, Paul Scholes and any of the other talking heads who seem to only drive further divisions through a fractious United camp.
The Red Devils’ backline hasn’t improved either – in fact, the makeshift full-backs have only grown older and the underwhelming centre-backs have only seemingly lost confidence – and thus, the style of play hasn’t evolved to appease the ever-expanding contingent of disillusioned supporters.
From conceding in the opening minute to hauling Pogba off with half an hour left to play and even the full time whistle that marked Sanchez’s completely anonymous debut – tellingly, his second mention in this article comes in the last paragraph – all the underlying pressures at United seemed to surface that day against Tottenham.
Seven months down the line, none of those issues have really been solved and the Red Devils once again face the prospect of a defeat that will highlight their many shortcomings.
This time though, rather than simply exposing fundamental flaws, a loss could soon prove to be the beginning of the end of Mourinho’s time at Old Trafford.