Rather astonishingly, with the new Premier League season yet to commence, Jose Mourinho and Manchester United, rather than waiting for external entities to torpedo this campaign’s title charge, they are managing quite adroitly to do it themselves from within.
Pre-season games, whether won or lost, don’t – or rather, shouldn’t – hold any particular relevance in the greater scheme. The International Champions Cup is something its promotors like to present as a legitimate competition in which its participants are fully invested. It is a friendly tournament; a chance for the players to get back in shape, to stretch and shake off the rust no doubt accumulated during their luxurious holiday breaks.
What is written about a team during pre-season, what the word is inside the camp, what gets published, what most of the column inches are dedicated to discussing and dissecting, is a far truer indication of how a club is shaping up.
During their United States tour, United played out a couple of dull draws, were hammered by Liverpool and then beat Real Madrid. But few take notice. Who cares. Did you hear what Mourinho said about Antony Martial? Did you listen to his rant about transfers and the lack thereof?
Whatever piece or article you happen to stumble across that has taken Man United as its focus basically will read the same as ever other; United in Trouble, Mourinho in Meltdown, Special One now the Grumpy One.
No other members of the Premier League’s top six, even given some of their own predicaments, have been beleaguered with the same level of negativity.
Take Chelsea for example. A real breakdown in relationship between the previous manager and the board, an inevitable departure that dragged and dragged, then eventually Antonio Conte did leave, a couple of days after England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia. A new manager at the helm, in a new league, learning a new language. Players in the squad still rumoured to be itching for a move away. One major signing, again unproven in England. So much uncertainty, and yet. And yet, at least we’re not in United’s position.
If there is one thing in this world that Mourinho adores and covets, possibly even more than winning itself, it’s sticking it to his doubters. The signings he wants, that he made clear to vice-chairman Ed Woodward back in April he had targeted, may not come. His relationship with Martial may never be repaired. That cheeky, mischievous smirk that so often split across his cheeks during his younger years may never return.
But, as mentioned, one thing that will never fade or deteriorate is Mourinho’s childish delight in proving nay-sayers wrong, and not only that, but holding up his triumph in front of their faces and making sure they get a good, long look.
It is easy to be distracted. You read piece after piece about the tribulations of United and their cantankerous manager, you read all about the players who won’t come, the players who want out, the players who reportedly feel the manager’s contrariness is affecting the mood of the entire camp, you read about players giving interviews and then subsequently asking the journalist to edit out certain answers for fear they would displease Mourinho and further exacerbate the tense atmosphere, you read about these things and you tend to forget to notice the positives.
United still, despite the manager’s desperation for further signings, have a strong squad. Granted, another centre-back would greatly improve the situation, with the position currently over-saturated by those who either no longer, or never did, have the ability to provide the side with real stability in defence. Barcelona’s Columbian centre-back Yerry Mina has become the new favourite to join the ranks over Leicester City defender Harry Maguire, after United’s failed attempts to prise the Englishman away following his positive performances in the World Cup.
But even if no other player comes in, and as hard as it will be for Mourihno, he must remain positive. It might seem unlikely right now that he will find it within himself to slap on a smile and bring a little sunniness back to his media appearances. But, as many managers and players like to remind us, the next game is always the most important.
United kick off the Premier League campaign by welcoming Leicester to Old Trafford next Friday evening. Claude Puel’s side will start the 18/19 season unarmed with Riyad Mahrez, who finally secured the move to Manchester City he so badly wanted back in January.
Mourinho’s side should win. If they do, his post-match press interviews could be very interesting indeed. He will no doubt talk about all that has been written about him, about his manner and his bullish comments about his own players, and point to the final score. What negativity? He’ll utter. And it’ll be what he needs, what the team and the club needs. A strong start.
Lose, or even draw, and the tale will go on. The Mourinho/Man United saga will have some energy still in its legs to run deeper into the season. There will be more quotes to scribble down, and less time to contemplate them, because there will be another just around the corner, and another and another. Perhaps it will never end until the Portuguese eventually decides he has had enough. But it is all down to him how this season will pan out for United. It’s his call, and he can start by beating Leicester next Friday.
It won’t mean the league will be theirs. But it will be a start.