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I remember when I was eleven years old and a friend of my father couldn’t attend Old Trafford on a cold night in January as Manchester United hosted Watford. Lucky for me, he lent us a pair of season tickets and I watched United cruise to a 4-0 victory, firmly putting them in the driving seat for the title. One terrace chant in particular has stayed with me since that night. After the success of Chelsea under Jose Mourinho the previous season, United fans sang: “Mourinho are you listening, you better keep the trophy glistening, we’ll be back in May, to take it away, walking in a Fergie wonderland.”
Eleven years on, it seems ironic that the same man would be the cause of the division amongst the Old Trafford faithful. After a turbulent start to the season, Manchester United is simply not the club it once was. Some United fans will point to Mourinho as the primary issue. The tacticians amongst football fans will point to gaps across the field that United failed to fill during the summer. But the problems at Manchester United extend much further than that. It is not simply the role of the manager; nor the role of the executives.
But the transition of Manchester United since the Fergie era does not correlate with the psyche of the fans. The transformation of the Premier League over recent years is another leading factor. The club lacks the harmony required for success, and this stretches back to the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. It is no good isolating individual factors as the cause of a storm that has been brewing for five years.
Whilst they’re a big club on the stock market, they no longer feel like a big club on the pitch.
As much as it pains us non-United fans to say, Manchester United are by far the biggest club in the country. They are one of the five biggest clubs in the world. Their global marketing is unlike anything we have seen in the history of English football. They are the second most profitable sports team in the world behind NFL outfit Dallas Cowboys, operating at an income of a staggering $254 million. However, United’s international influence has not had an impact on their success in recent years. Whilst they’re a big club on the stock market, they no longer feel like a big club on the pitch.
United are not the bullies of the Premier League anymore. In the past, the fans and players of their Premier League opponents used to fear when United came to town, or when they were due a trip down Sir Matt Busby Way. That is no longer the case. Those lower to mid-table teams in the Premier League now fancy their chances against United. Going into the international break, United have already been beaten twice, with the first defeat at the hands of Brighton, a team who with all due respect, the big six expect to have taken all six points from at the end of the season. Going into that game, many, myself included, had a hunch that the seagulls would turn over the red devils.
Tottenham would inflict that other defeat eight days later at Old Trafford. Of course, Tottenham are hungry for success and are an established top four side. But the manner of that defeat, a 3-0 thrashing at home, has to be a big concern to United fans. Romelu Lukaku missing a sitter in the first half and the fact that United couldn’t convert one of their 23 chances must also be a worry.
By the 90th minute, Old Trafford was a ghost town. Scrolling through social media that evening, those fans who left early were ridiculed. However, you can understand their frustration. When the cheapest adult season ticket is £532, you expect to receive more on the pitch. But the truth of the matter is United haven’t won a major trophy since 2013, hardly what you expect from the second biggest profitable sport outfit in the world.
What must be all the more frustrating for United fans is whilst they see the dust settling on their trophy cabinet, they see their noisy neighbours filling their’s.
For United fans, it must be impossible to criticise their own team without looking at City. Whilst the champions look to carry on where they left off last season, the desperation of United fans will only increase.
But this is where Jose comes into the picture. ‘The Special One’ is not as special as he once was. His triumphant return to Stamford Bridge a few seasons ago ended in dismissal, and many see his United career heading in the same direction. But it is also important to remember that last season, United finished in second place with 81 points, winning 25 games. That is the form of champions, but last season was an anomaly due to the record-breaking performance of City. The unspoken truth is, that United fans completely disregard their strong finish because they expect to be better than City. It is this fact that has acted as a catalyst for the opposition of some United fans to Mourinho.
United fans crave success, and who can blame them after the years under Fergie. The reigns of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal ended with a bitter taste in the mouth, and it seems the current reign is heading that way. But does Mourinho deserve that? After all, he has won trophies and finished strongly last season. Should that omit him from the scrutiny his predecessors were put under?
The thing that Mourinho could and should be criticised for is his arrogance. His post-match press conference after the Spurs game saw him erupt in a bizarre rant, demanding respect whilst listing his accomplishments. Reading between the lines, it almost seemed as if he was making himself bigger than the club. His response to United’s recent form is his own history. That is not going to fix their current problems. His tactics should not be the fans cause for concern, but his own ego may well be.
Mourinho is a talented man. A three-time Premier League winner, a La Liga winner, a Champions League winner, a Serie A winner. He has won everything he has had the chance to win. But his arrogance blinds him from seeing what he can achieve. Playing Ander Herrera as a centre-back against Spurs encapsulates this, a way of spitting out his dummy and showing the board what he has to resort to without that key signing centre-back he failed to secure off the back of the World Cup. But this does not achieve anything for the club. The sooner Jose learns that no man is bigger than any club, the better.
Times have changed since the class of ’92. This current outfit does not resemble anything they have ever had in the past. Their failings in the summer transfer window means that they will have to rely on the average partnership of Jones and Smalling for another season. Not much is clear at Manchester United any more. But what is clear is that they seem to no longer have the ability to attract the world’s best players and despite having one of them right now in Paul Pogba, cannot seem to extract their full potential.
The Premier League is not the pond it once was, and Manchester United is no longer its biggest fish.
For many, this comes down to the manager. But I see it as a product of the United transformation. Many have expected success too quickly, many have expected the Fergie era to roll on to the next man, but football does not work like that. Three managers, and a few minor trophies later you are left with a club that looks destined for the Europa League.
United will finish in the top half, that goes without saying, but one struggles to see how they can creep in the top four this season with the negativity that covers the back pages on a daily basis. Until those kinks are ironed out, United fans expectations should be significantly lower than they have been in previous seasons. The Premier League is not the pond it once was, and Manchester United is no longer its biggest fish.