It was only one month ago that we sat in the stands for the first home match of the season, my brother, my dad and me, under the floodlights on a balmy Friday Manchester night. We left buoyed by what we’d seen, and by the gasps and coos we’d shared with the thousands of other Manchester United fans who had watched their team beat Southampton 2-0.
It was a first sight of Jose Mourinho’s new-look United team in the flesh for many of us and, with it, the burning hope of a new dawn. Surely United must have improved since last season, which had so few redeeming features?
And United did look better. There was more pace, more drive, more fluidity. There was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and, in particular, Paul Pogba, who showed glimpses of his remarkable talent, moments of rare brilliance for a starved crowd to enjoy, that peculiar sound of tens of thousands of people’s breath being taken away in a single, exhilarating moment.
Walking back down Sir Matt Busby Way after the game, there was a sense that we were all wondering the same thing but no one dared articulate it – ‘Are United back?’ – and the last second Marcus Rashford goal against Hull City, complete with wild celebrations, did nothing to dispel the feeling that the United-like swagger of old was beginning to emerge once more.
But of course that is what football does to you. You veer from ecstasy to despair in a matter of seconds and from relative serenity to full-blown crisis over the course of a week. Why did we ever think that things would be perfect and the addition of a few new faces would fix a team that has been put together by four different managers, many of the players having looked broken at various times over the course of the last few years?
It was deeply unfortunate that it should be Manchester City that exposed the cracks beneath the paper but City it was. As Kevin De Brunye and David silva ran rings around United’s hapless midfield, you could see the confidence draining from the players as quickly as the colour drained from our faces. ‘Not again,’ I remember thinking, the ghosts of recent humiliations at City’s hands sending shivers down the spine.
That’s how bad that first half hour was. Yet United rallied, making a contest of a match that had threatened to consume them and it felt like there were positives to take from that alone.
Now, however, the niggles of concern that began during that match, over the sluggishness of our midfield, Pogba’s inability to influence proceedings, the uncouth tactics that nearly, but didn’t quite, reap rewards. And the fact that City looked slicker, hungrier and far more in tune with their new manager’s masterplan. Mourinho, in contrast, looked like he didn’t have a plan and the next two games have only served to cement all those niggles into more serious unease.
Feyenoord and Watford, similarly, were better organised and had more appetite than United and it is all the more strange given Mourinho’s history of meticulous planning and exceptional in-game management. He has shuffled his pack with alarming regularity, in terms of personnel, tactics and formation and it is difficult to know what his overall vision really is.
Pogba, after his initial impact, suddenly looks lost, bewildered, ragged – much Ike the team as a whole. It is odd that, having spent such a fortune on the Frenchman, the team is not being built with his strengths in mind. Marouane Fellaini is many things – including a totem for the last three years of decay – but effective defensive midfielder is not one of them. The Belgian has improved since his nightmare first season but he was starting from a very low point.
As for the man ahead of Pogba, Wayne Rooney appears to be reaching the zenith of his long decline and it is noticeable that the press, and even a few pundits, are now expressing what many of us have been saying for years – that he is holding Manchester United back. Mourinho is not the first manager who has mystified many fans with his perseverance with Rooney but he will surely have to be the last if he wants to succeed at the club.
Mourinho has never been one to shirk when it comes to poking a political hornet’s nest and it is that kind of bullish, searing ruthlessness that is now needed. If Rooney is not grown up enough to accept a new, decreased role, then it may be time for him to disappear into the wilderness of the American or Chinese leagues.
Pogba needs pace around him, and a far better defensive foil behind him than Fellaini, if he is to bomb forward with the kind of confidence, freedom and decisiveness so crucial to his game.
For so long a master of the siege-mentality, Mourinho must recognise that he and his new club are fast being surrounded on all sides. He has time on his side and plenty of talent at his disposal but he must shake off this bizarre, meek ‘Mourinho-Lite’ version of himself and draw on all his experience in order to turn this slump around.
Otherwise, that balmy Friday night full of hope one month ago will continue to look like little more than an apparition.