The game had just finished and the chants from the away end grew louder and louder as Jose Mourinho walked towards them for the second game running to thank them for their support. Manchester United had just beaten Burnley and the feeling among the fans who made the trip to support the team was that of gratitude, appreciation and a sense of pride.
Romelu Lukaku can be congratulated for hitting another milestone in his career by equaling league great Didier Drogba’s goal tally. Grabbing a brace against the Clarets puts the Belgian on 104 goals and one cannot help but wonder how many he would have at this stage in his career if he was a bit more decisive in front of goal. Or if he had ever been on regular penalty taking duty, which is a role Paul Pogba currently inhabits and Leighton Baines took charge of previously. Or if he had spent the majority of his career playing for a team at the top of the table, rather than mid-table sides like Everton and West Brom.
However, the goals he buried on Sunday were needed because anything but a win against Burnley would have been an even more disastrous start to United’s 2018-2019 campaign. Grabbing the win was crucial to United’s chances of staying in touch with their contemporaries for the Premier League title – and in a match week where they all won, United just had no excuse.
Liverpool remain unbeaten after four games but as poor as United have been at times this season, six points is quite a surmountable deficit, presuming Jurgen Klopp’s men succumb at some point, particularly given Alisson’s penchant for trying to take on strikers in the box.
In light of last season’s situation, the team must strive to stay close to the front runners, including surprise package, Watford. Seeing the Hornets beat Tottenham Hotspur rounded off a good weekend for the Reds. The loss to Spurs still hurts because we saw a different side of Mourinho, one we usually do not see when United come up against a top six team in the league. United dominated play for long stretches, created lots of chances and, in the end, Mourinho ended up with nothing until adoring fans in the Stretford End serenaded the Portuguese tactician. The fans repeated this gesture at the Turf Moor and that was a further indication of how much faith they have in him to turn the fortunes of the club around. Mourinho’s third season curse still lingers, his team isn’t flying as we would all expect but the fans still have a belief that he can steer the ship to safety.
Why aren’t the fans turning on the manager?
Deploying Ander Herrera as cover for the advanced Antonio Valencia in the three-man backline against Spurs proved to be a light throwback to a not so distant time where overloading the opposing area was even a bore. More attacking threat was hurled onto the pitch when Alexis Sanchez and Marouane Fellaini’s aerial threat was called off the bench. United impressed but the result proved to be anything but a good outing for the home side. As demanding as fans of the Premier League’s most successful team are, they recognise efforts when they see them. Mourinho is trying his best to get his side play to its full abilities and the most striking example is the flurry of personnel and formation changes made so far in the season.
A loss to Brighton signalled the exit of Eric Bailly, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial from the starting line-up against Spurs. Against Burnley, Herrera and Fred were moved to the bench for Fellaini and Sanchez. Jose is trying every trick in the book to get positive results.
Luke Shaw has arguably been the best Manchester United player this season and is the latest player to respond well to Mourinho’s demands and criticism. Doing so has earned him a call up to England’s national team for the first time since March 2017. It appears as though the relationship between the two has strengthened, with Mourinho seeking him out for consolation following the Spurs game, and expressing his sadness in the post-match conference for a player who did not deserve to be on the losing side. It is encouraging to see that Mourinho is content with making a U-turn on the left-back after repeatedly calling him out last season.
It is clear to all that the manager is trying. Nemanja Matic has claimed that his behaviour in press conferences over recent weeks has purely been an attempt to protect the players from criticism. The fans can see the effort but for how long will the they back a man if the results are not reflective of a real Manchester United side?
But it’s not all down to Mourinho. He will need his star players to pull up their socks too, none more than Paul Pogba, who is yet to deliver the kind of form many expect. The former Juventus man played at the World Cup for France like a man on a mission to prove everybody who has questioned his tactical discipline and willingness to defend wrong. In United colours, the aforementioned traits have come and gone despite several attempts to make him feel comfortable. In his third season back at Old Trafford, Mourinho and the board have roped in Nemanja Matic and Fred purposely to take on such roles and free Pogba. Jose has altered his middle men to accommodate Pogba’s preferred position on the left side of a three man midfield and behind Lukaku and before him, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. So far, all of Mourinho’s attempts to rekindle Pogba’s fire have failed and have increased Jose’s problems greatly.
So, what next?
After witnessing the extent of the team’s dreadful central defence, signs indicate that Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward and Mourinho are treading down the same path. Having a united front is the best way to build on from a good result away from home ahead of daunting tasks against Watford in the league and Juventus in the Champions League. The Watford game may have appeared as an easier prospect when the fixtures were first announced but their start to the season has meant United will have to be at their best to get a result. They cannot afford to underestimate them as has too often been the case when facing smaller clubs during Mourinho’s reign.
It is likely that Mourinho will again ask for defenders to be signed in the January transfer window and it will be interesting to see how Woodward responds. Having repeatedly briefed the press about his decision to override the manager’s wishes, even he must now realise that was a mistake, with United conceding seven goals in the opening four games, especially as most of them were avoidable.
The club failed in the summer transfer window – just bringing in 19-year-old Diogo Dalot and Fred – in an attempt to bridge the 19 point gap with City from last season, and all the problems have been left at the doorstep of Woodward who refused to back a man he gave a new contract to just this year.
While Sunday showed the faith that match-going fans still have in the manager, the plane that flew overhead before kick-off showed their feelings of Woodward all too clearly. While banners on planes are fairly tacky, the sentiment shown was one shared by many supporters.
If Woodward wants to get the fans back on his side, which arguably is not a priority given his main role is to generate money for the club, and therefore the Glazers, he can earn some goodwill by simply providing his backing for Mourinho and giving him the support he needs in the transfer market.
What United fans and Mourinho have in common is their ability to fully get behind a siege mentality of us against the world. Jose Mourinho is many things on a football pitch, not all of them to the supporters’ liking, but a proven winner is one of them. The supporters, Woodward and Mourinho all share the same desperation to see his winning methods of days gone by return to Old Trafford. Time will tell if he still has it in him but the supporters are willing to show him the patience that his CV has earned.