Manchester United suffered a painful low in their Champions League defeat against Sevilla with a tepid performance that failed again to do justice to their attacking heritage.
However, with a growing disconnect between fans and manager there could be far worse ahead on Saturday, April 7.
That is the date Manchester City can make history by winning the title with more than a month of the season to go, and their opponents at the Etihad are Jose Mourinho’s side.
The prospect of losing in the backyard of their noisy neighbours and handing the championship to their bitter rivals is too painful for United fans even to consider and it could open up doubts over Mourinho’s long-term future.
On the face of it, the Special One has been a success at Old Trafford: Three trophies in his first season, second place looking likely this year and an FA Cup still a possibility ahead of Saturday’s home quarter-final against Brighton.
He has raised United’s profile back to where it belongs, retrieved some of the glamour and spent big money — almost €260m — on big players, just like the old days.
That’s why fans on the Stretford End, still high after winning the Europa League last season, chanted in Mourinho’s honour: ‘Something tells me I’m into something good. Woke up this morning feeling fine, got Man United on my mind. Jose’s playing the way that United should, oh yeah!’
Did they start singing too soon, though? Listening to disgruntled fans on the streets around the club’s ground on Tuesday night provided an insight into where United supporters are with the Special One and, if there was one thing they agreed on, it was that Jose isn’t playing the way United should anymore.
The kind of words used were “negative”, “a disgrace”, “half-hearted”, “defensive”, “no desire, no energy”, “poor selection, wrong tactics”.
Of course, everyone is emotional after a match, especially when you have just been knocked out of the Champions League, but those are the kind of phrases which would lead to a manager further down the league losing his job.
Surprisingly, Mourinho, insisted the performance wasn’t bad, describing it instead as “positive”, which drew an angry response from incredulous United fans on social media and radio phone-ins.
Former United stars Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand did not hold back in their criticism, either, as we have come to expect.
“It was difficult watching that,” Scholes said. “There was no desire, no energy, no speed about the team. I can’t explain it.”
Ferdinand added: “I did not see this result coming after the performance against Liverpool.
They looked like a team thrown together, full of strangers.”
That kind of incredulity is common for United fans now. To say that Mourinho’s job is at stake is probably too strong, but he’s not a man to stay where he isn’t wanted and not a man who can easily recover relationships once they start to go wrong. A quick look at his management history shows you that.
There was an underlying concern among United fans, and some on the board too, that Mourinho’s abrasive character and overtly pragmatic football would not work long-term at Old Trafford... and that has never gone away.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course, there are signs that United are making progress and last week’s victory over Liverpool should have been another step on that road, but there are sizeable problems for the Special One to solve if he is to persuade the Old Trafford faithful he shares their vision; something he never quite achieved at Real Madrid where he was
accused of “anti-football” and of dragging a famous club’s reputation through the mud off the field, despite relative success on it.
So, this may not be the last ‘inquest’ of the season or of his United reign.
Here are some of the biggest questions being asked of the Special One as United turn their attention to the FA Cup and a D-Day against City which could throw everything into turmoil:
Style of play
This is a big one for United fans, who again screamed “attack, attack, attack” in frustration during the second half on Tuesday, just as they did so often under Louis van Gaal. They have been used to high-octane attacking performances at Old Trafford, with wingers flying at opponents and the crowd sucking the ball into the net in Fergie time.
Mourinho doesn’t provide that, and it shouldn’t be a surprise. His pragmatic style means he doesn’t set up to win 4-2 or even 4-0; he does tactically just enough to control a game and take ultimate victory.
Even when United beat Liverpool last week, there was criticism of their style of play. Mourinho’s answer was that Liverpool controlled the ball but that United controlled the game without the ball. The question is whether that is enough for the Stretford End.
You take your choice with the Special One. It may seem like ‘anti-football’, but it comes with trophies.
Relationship with the fans
Mourinho has never enjoyed the hero worship at United which he had during his first spell at Chelsea.
There has always been an undercurrent of suspicion and fear that he didn’t really fit. It thawed significantly after last season’s Europa League victory, but it returns after every negative result, every poor performance and every afternoon when the Old Trafford faithful didn’t feel entertained.
There was a real feeling of frustration with Mourinho’s team selection and tactics on Tuesday night and the relationship seems to be on a knife-edge.
Three times now he has criticised the atmosphere at Old Trafford, which is always risky — he did it in his second spell at Chelsea without achieving the desired effect — and you wonder how many times he can do so when a lack of entertainment is the real problem.
Relationship with United legends
Mourinho loves an ‘us against them’ world in which his team unites against the rest to achieve their goal, but he is going to remarkable lengths to combat the criticism coming his way from United legends, who are some of the most revered by United fans.
This week’s attack was on Gary Neville. Previous barbs have been aimed at Paul Scholes (who he said was jealous of Pogba’s money), Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs. It doesn’t look like a battle he can win.
The Sanchez conundrum
The Chilean was brought to Old Trafford in January as a superstar addition to take United to the next level, but he doesn’t look like a Mourinho player and hasn’t produced his best so far.
Sanchez has talent in abundance, but he slows the game down with his horizontal dribbles, often heading down a cul-de-sac, and plays far too deep to provide Romelu Lukaku with any real support.
When United need to pass the ball quicker to create momentum, Sanchez provides the opposite effect.
Mourinho needs to find a way to get the best from him or risk him being wasted.
As an Arsenal legend, Charlie Nicholas may not be the most objective of commentators, but he did sum up concerns about the former Emirates favourite, saying: “At the start of the season, Manchester United had a fluency to them.
Paul Pogba played high up with Jesse
Lingard behind him and Romelu Lukaku on his game. All of a sudden, Sanchez comes, Marcus Rashford gets dropped out and Anthony Martial gets moved over.
All of a sudden, the whole team is getting squeezed to fit Sanchez in. Sanchez, at the moment, does not deserve to be in the team. It’s too individual. He is giving the ball away too often.
I’m sure a lot of Manchester United fans must be looking and saying: ‘When is he going to do something for us?’”
It is hard to get to the bottom of constant stories suggesting Mourinho’s relationship with his star midfielder is strained; especially as the Special One has categorically denied them.
However, Pogba’s below-par performances, mystery injury and illness problems and Mourinho’s past history of losing patience with players who don’t give him what he wants, suggests there could be something in it.
Pogba failed to make an impact off the bench on Tuesday and has gone from being United’s best player earlier in the season to a frustrating one when it really matters. Coincidence, or is there trouble in the dressing room?
Teacher’s pets and overlooked stars
Just what is Mourinho’s obsession with Marouane Fellaini?
He seems to be a go-to man for the big occasion, someone to provide aerial power and tackling power in central midfield when his manager needs a gritty performance, but to choose him against a fluid Sevilla side in a match United needed to win?
It was another strange choice, as was playing Marcus Rashford on the right wing when he had made such a wonderful impact on the left against Liverpool.
While Fellaini gets special treatment, it seems Rashford has to feed on scraps, but that’s part of Mourinho’s make-up.
Luke Shaw has seen both sides of the boss’s Jekyll and Hyde personality, as has Ander Herrera and Juan Mata (during his Chelsea days).
Does it keep them on their toes, or does it make life more difficult? It’s a debate which may become all the more intense after April 7.
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