No excuses for Jose Mourinho as judgement time approaches

source: football365

Barely a week on from Jose Mourinho’s ‘frustration and concern’ being made public, Manchester United are now breezing through the summer. And all it took was £75million.

Whether the manager’s supposed unhappiness was all part of the smokescreen, we’ll likely never know. Given the circumstances around the Romelu Lukaku deal and how it was concluded without Chelsea even realising they were being gazumped, we suspect so. Mourinho will have been privy to almost every call Ed Woodward was making, so he must have been well aware of any progress when his supposed irritation was leaked to the press.

Woodward may still be two signings short of Mourinho’s perfect scenario, but time remains to find common ground with Inter Milan over Ivan Perisic, and either smooth relations with Chelsea enough for them to consider again allowing Nemanja Matic to leave, or find Daniel Levy’s tickle spot over Eric Dier. The latter now seems the likelier scenario.

No matter how much every manager dreams of having all his transfer business done before his squad returns for pre-season training, that was never going to happen for Mourinho without Woodward having his pants pulled down all over Europe. Clubs are demanding ludicrous fees for their players because they know Premier League clubs are minted, none more so than United. Woodward has been naive before; no way would he have opened himself up to similar accusations, even if it means Mourinho has to wait a little longer for his targets. Given how heavily the manager is being backed, it is a fair compromise.

And his most-coveted pair were both present for United’s first pre-season training session at UCLA in California. The Red Devils could kick off the season tomorrow, and with centre-half Victor Lindelof present to bolster the defensive ranks and Lukaku replacing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they would be stronger than they finished a campaign that ended with two trophies.

With Perisic due back in Milan to make his position clear to Inter, the stalemate between United and the Nerazzurri looks likely to be broken in the not-too-distant future, leaving the rest of the summer to focus on the trickiest of United’s objectives: recruiting a holding midfielder.

In the meantime, Mourinho has the luxury of having his whole squad at his disposal for the entirety of pre-season. His players returned to Carrington on Saturday with Paul Pogba and Lukaku joining them in Los Angeles on Sunday evening. The manager has played a major role in organising this year’s jaunt, having been left frustrated by a series of problems in China last year, when the weather and travel logistics wreaked havoc with the carefully laid plans he had drawn up for a tour that was forced upon him and arranged under a previous regime.

Some sympathised with the frustration he was supposedly feeling last week, but a week and a few quid spent later, it is clear that Mourinho’s potential excuses are being removed on by one. As Lukaku said: “Titles every year. And nothing less.”

And the manager knows it. The Europa League victory – the first time United have won the trophy – made last season a success but the margin between that and failure was too fine for Mourinho.

This coming season, with his players preprared and playing his way, the title is the only objective. The top four, of course, is a must, but that was the case last season, and it took a European trophy to compensate for that failure.

Just like David Moyes took the Red Devils from first to sixth, it is entirely reasonable to expect Mourinho to guide United on the return journey.

Last season, he recruited extremely well, but the problems came with the players he inherited. It has taken a year to straighten out those he felt it was worth bothering to straighten out, with the likes of Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial and Chris Smalling now fully aware of what is expected of them.

His recruits, Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, all enjoyed successful seasons, and with Lukaku replacing Ibrahimovic while adding pace to the forward line, the expectation is that all will push on again. Pogba especially. There were sporadic performances that raised questions about the huge fee United paid Juventus, but we suspect the midfielder will excel this year, especially if Mourinho can field him alongside the players he has handpicked as enablers.

Pogba can play a huge role in eradicating United’s biggest flair: their wastefulness in front of goal. Fix that, and Mourinho has cracked it.

While Louis van Gaal passed on a team that was hard to beat, they were also desperately hard to watch. Contrary to some opinons, Mourinho made United fascinating again, though his side created tension as often as excitement owing to their failures in front of goal.

Creating chances was progress from the previous season, but being clinical enough to finish them is now the compulsory next step, and if Lukaku can repeat his form of last season while surrounded by better players, then that will go some way to remedying the fact that United scored fewer goals than every team who finished above them, as well as Everton and Bournemouth.

One area ripe for improvement is United’s potency at set-pieces. Only four teams scored fewer goals as a result of set-pieces, while only Middlesbrough created fewer chances, with even Sunderland making seven more chances from set-plays last term. So it is no surprise that Mourinho has made physicality a theme in his recruitment, with Mkhitaryan being his only addition who stands shorter than 6ft 1in. Lukaku and Lindelof add more power, with Perisic and Dier/Matic all physically imposing specimens.

Mourinho creates winning machines and by the time the season kicks off, the United boss will have spent 15 months building this one by hand. Whatever mitigation – fair or not – was offered last season no longer applies. This is the team that Jose will be judged upon.

Ian Watson

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