"Some people speak too much; calm down, relax a little bit.” It might be time for that again at Old Trafford. Ten months on, Jose Mourinho must be tempted to recall his own words - uttered in the aftermath of a win over Tottenham which was a statement in itself. An unadventurous draw with Liverpool followed by a shock defeat to Huddersfield had brought difficult questions home. Three points were necessary back then, as they are now.
Mourinho, as ever, saw the response to those results last year as excessive. The roof was not about to come falling down at United, he insisted, and it did not. But it takes only a leaking pipe to induce mass hysteria at a big club, and Mourinho knew that too. The 1-0 win against Spurs at Old Trafford was timely plumbing work, and he brandished a finger on his lips to the camera at the final whistle.
Will he do the same on Monday night, if the visit of Spurs yet again proves to be cathartic? For years, when Alex Ferguson was in charge, the name of Tottenham warmed the hearts of the United faithful. As the apocryphal account goes, the former manager would merely say, “Lads, it’s Tottenham.” But the pre-game team talk cannot be pithy anymore. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs are bona-fide challengers.
However, despite defeating United thrice since he took charge of the North Londoners in the summer of 2014, Pochettino has returned from Old Trafford with a defeat on each of his four visits there. The record must give Mourinho confidence. He will also fondly recall that the latest meeting between the two sides comes less than four months after the Red Devils denied Spurs a place in the FA Cup final on their own Wembley turf.
However, a weird summer followed for both clubs as the transfer market brought more worries than before. Spurs did not sign a single player, and United did not do much better. The loss to Brighton & Hove Albion last weekend was another reminder of the faults which lie within Mourinho’s team. In spite of the manager’s desire to sign a central defender, Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward chose to not back him in the market.
The feeling at the club seems to be that Mourinho must make the best of what he has. It is not a question of money – United is the richest football team in the world, after all. Rather, the club administration is not entirely in line with Mourinho’s vision. Having sanctioned the transfers of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof over the past two seasons, United was not keen to splash the cash on Harry Maguire or Jerome Boateng.
Or even Toby Alderweireld. The Belgian was heavily linked with United over the summer, especially after he was deemed surplus to requirements by Pochettino last season. But as Alderweireld showed the previous weekend against Fulham, his game intelligence and ability to circulate the ball from the back remain sharp. These are not qualities that Mourinho was necessarily looking for, but there is no doubt that the Spurs defender is highly adaptable and he would have been a fine signing for United.
On Monday night, though, the Portuguese manager will have to be content with watching Alderweireld in the white and blue of Tottenham. The Belgian’s presence in the opposition squad will be a stark reminder of a difficult summer, whose shadow continues to lengthen. This is why the defeat to Brighton was not merely a loss of three points, it was also the shredding of the paper which was barely keeping the cracks out of view. The problems with the defence, the difficult relationship between manager and Paul Pogba, and the sterile attack, all of them are important issues again. United can no longer pretend that things are hunky-dory.
This begs the question then, if the peace is so flimsy, then how long can it last? If every defeat is a crisis and a referendum on Mourinho’s time at United, is his time running out? The third season has not been particularly kind to the Portuguese coach. His last two tenures, at Chelsea and Real Madrid, were brought to an end by discontent and resentment that razed his achievements at those clubs to the ground. Mourinho has not achieved a lot at United, so can he survive another campaign if it brings little joy?
Of course, in the context of the ongoing season, it is still early days. This is why a matchup against a major rival assumes enhanced significance. It will allow Mourinho an opportunity to lay down a marker. In the past, he tended to adopt a defensive outlook to ensure that a fellow contender does not receive a significant advantage in the opening weeks of a season. But in the current scenario, can United afford to play for merely a draw?
Mourinho may have to push his own boundaries if he has to regain a semblance of control. Another defeat would be an invitation to a crisis. United is already teetering on its brink, but two defeats in three league matches would leave Woodward and his colleagues wondering whether Mourinho is still the man to return United to its better days. A win, of course, would put those questions to rest for now. Such is the flimsy reality for United, and their fellow competitors.
But Mourinho will not mind it. There’s nothing that he would like more right now than shushing the critics. His finger must be itching to rest on his lips once again.
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Updated Date: Aug 27, 2018 13:42:29 IST