The Third Year Syndrome

Waiting for this wretched start to be over – The Special One.

Tenth place in the Premier League after seven matches. An outside chance for winning the domestic title. A bit bigger but still slim chance of winning the Champions League. Early elimination from the EFL Cup. Three league matches with three goals conceded (last season, that number was zero; the season before – two). Endless stream of criticism from pundits, including Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Ian Wright. This is the landscape of José Mourinho’s third season at Old Trafford – and the boss himself is not without fault.

But let’s sort out the facts first. Since the start of this season, Manchester United:

– Beat Leicester City 2-1, courtesy of an absurd handball by right-back Daniel Amartey. For the first time since their Premier League return, Foxes left Old Trafford with the advantage in ball possession (53.7%) and in attempts on goal (thirteen to United’s eight).

– Lost 2-3 away at Brighton, conceding from each of the opposition’s shots on target. This was the same Brighton side that lost to Watford 0-2 the previous week and has not scored a single Premier League victory since beating Red Devils.

– Lost 0-3 at home to Tottenham Hotspur. For the first time in seven years, Spurs managed to keep a clean sheet in a league match at Old Trafford. For the first time in four years, United lost a home league game by a three-goal margin.

– Won 2-0 away at Burnley, two days after Clarets’ Europa League exit and right in the middle of their crisis. While Romelu Lukaku was busy scoring a brace, Paul Pogba wasted a penalty and Marcus Rashford saw a straight red for a very stupid headbutt on Phil Bardsley.

– Won 2-1 away at Watford. The first truly precious win against in-form opposition saw Lukaku scoring an opener with a stomach and Chris Smalling doubling the lead after a corner. On the other hand: De Gea had to do brilliantly to save Deeney’s and Kabasele’s shots.

– Beat Young Boys 3-0 in the Champions League. Pogba scored a top-corner beauty before converting a completely undeserved penalty. Anthony Martial rounded off the victory with a lucky, deflected finish and the first truly convincing victory was in MU’s hands.

– Drew 1-1 with Wolves at home. The newly promoted opponents have managed eight shots on target and it’s only to De Gea’s credit that they haven’t won that match.

– Drew 2-2 with Derby County, then lost a penalty shootout and a shot at League Cup. Once again, Old Trafford saw the visitors having more possession and goal attempts than Red Devils. Except that this time, it was the Championship team that accomplished it.

– Lost 1-3 away at West Ham. It was Hammers’ first win in this fixture since May 2016 and first goals in it since November 2016. Marko Arnautović scored a game-ending goal just three minutes after Marcus Rashford’s strike restored United some hope.

– Drew 0-0 at home with Valencia. It was a dirty game marked by the lack of clear goalscoring chances and solid defending from the visitors. Rashford has put a bunch of shots wide and the Spanish side picked up an important point in their Champions League struggle.

Valencia on the left, Valencia on the right. On Tuesday, both earned one point.

During that time, José Mourinho:

– Repeatedly complained about the number of signings he was allow to make during the summer transfer window – mentioning that none of the five men he shortlisted as his main targets ended up moving to Lancashire. He never mentioned £388 million he spent on new players during his first and second year at United, though.

– Praised Paul Pogba’s World Cup performances and subsequently handed the Frenchman a captain’s armband for the opening league game against Leicester. Eight games later, after the Derby County defeat, he stripped his most expensive player off the captaincy – although the player himself watched the defeat from the stands.

– Deployed five different centre-back partnerships. The Bailly-Lindelof duo lasted two games; then, it was replaced by Smalling and Jones in a fateful loss against Tottenham. The next four matches belonged to to the Smalling-Lindelof axis – but against Derby, Bailly and Jones took charge in yet another swap that coincided with failure. Eventually, Mourinho settled for Bailly and Smalling and those two took good care of Valencia. Was this the configuration Jose was looking for all along or are we due another change?

– Invoked his three Premier League titles (none won with Man Utd) and the title tally of all his nineteen Premier League counterparts (which has shrunk significantly last summer, due to Arsène Wenger retirement/sacking from Arsenal). He’d also mock Tottenham for their past misfortune in the FA Cup semifinal (which would’ve ended differently had Valencia been sent off for a two-footed tackle on Alli in the first half of that match). All in a single, post-match press conference, which added “respect” to the list of his buzzwords.

– Defended Alexis Sánchez both during the miserable pre-season U.S. tour and the league campaign. Between those two instances of his managers’ endorsement, the Chilean has made eight appearances in the red shirt, provided one assist, picked up one yellow card and tried 12 shots – all without scoring a single goal. Meanwhile, his 2018/19 wages have already amounted to £5 million – a figure that is destined to reach £26 million by May…

– Conducted a truly bizarre experiment at London Stadium. Ashley Young ahead of Diogo Dalot and Antonio Valencia at right-back; midfielder Scott McTominay at centre-back instead of benched Eric Bailly and Anthony Martial as a second striker with Sánchez outside of the match squad – that was United’s lineup in a miserable 1-3 defeat to West Ham. To make things worse, the manager shamelessly explained Martial’s appearance as his personal appeasement of the media, who demanded the Frenchman’s presence from the first minute.

Martial against West Ham. The most expensive, unneeded footballer on the planet?

The saddest thing about this state of affairs is that 2017/18 United more often than not looked like a team on the right track. Yes, they’d lose to Sevilla; yes, they’d fall in FA Cup final against Chelsea; yes, they’d beat Manchester City just to squander that success against West Brom a week later. But the sense of consistency was there – and so was the defensive reliability that often becomes the foundation of future success.

Today, all that progress seems to be undone. David de Gea lost superhero status during the World Cup and is yet to regain it. Phil Jones is back to square one with his hamstring troubles. Nemanja Matić doesn’t cement the team together as he used to in August 2017. Responsible for 8 league goals and 6 assists last term, Jesse Lingard keeps firing blanks. Anthony Martial, once the brightest super-sub in the league, looks more and more dejected by his boss’ policy of keeping him away from the pitch.

Therefore, Mourinho’s list of reliable players is dangerously short. Luke Shaw has shown plenty of enthusiasm following his injury recovery. Chris Smalling outperformed his more reputable colleagues to a centre-back spot. Romelu Lukaku does his absolute best to lift the slumping team and young Diogo Dalot shows tons of promise whenever he’s given a chance.

At the other end of the spectrum lies Paul Pogba and his perpetual struggle to prove his worth to the team. Excellent against Leicester, he’d vanish two weeks later in front of Tottenham. Then, the carousel of form continued. Fairly poor at Turf Moor, Pogba had much better time away at Watford and only Ben Foster kept him from scoring. Then, there was the Young Boys game which looked like a breakthrough for the former Juventus man. Apparently, it wasn’t: ten days later, in London, Mark Noble and 19-years old Declan Rice were dealing with Pogba as if he was nobody.

The reality is merciless. Undefeated City, Liverpool and Chelsea are currently out of United’s league. The fourth place is being contested by Arsenal and Tottenham, who are also displaying more quality despite spending £114 million and £204 million less than Red Devils did in the last three years, respectively. Finishing below one of those two will demote MU back to Europa League. That, in turn, would mean less transfer money and less motivation for top summer targets to sign.

Regardless whether the future is bound to be this bleak or not – MU absolutely have to win this weekend. The horrifically dreadful Newcastle United side is coming to town and anything less than a 3-0 victory will cast even more doubts over this group of players and their Portuguese leader. And it’s not like Mourinho himself doesn’t have a rich story of failing in his third season already…

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