The season is two games old, yet already the wheels have come off for Manchester United.
Sunday’s abject 3-2 defeat at Brighton had been coming after a summer of discontent and rancour between brooding Jose Mourinho and the club’s hierarchy.
The cracks began to appear on the summer tour in the USA, when manager Mourinho made clear his discontent with the perceived lack of support in the transfer window from executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
He was angered over Woodward’s failure to deliver the five transfer targets he identified months earlier, and the weekend’s events at the Amex Stadium served to endorse his stance.
Yet Mourinho has spent almost £400million over the past five windows and the board – led by Woodward – were reluctant to pay more inflated fees on players who were not a guaranteed upgrade on what they already have.
The cooling of the relationship between the two men, and the latter’s decision not to bend to his manager’s demands, which he had done in previous windows, represents a significant development at Old Trafford.
It suggests the reverence Woodward felt towards Mourinho when he appointed him in summer 2016 has been stripped away and replaced by the galling realisation he may not be the man to take United back to the top.
There is a feeling among the hierarchy that Mourinho should have the team performing on a more consistent basis, and defeats like the one at Brighton – or those to Huddersfield, Newcastle, West Brom and the Seagulls again last season – cannot be blamed solely on their lack of financial investment.
Rather, it points to faults with Mourinho’s own approach and managerial style, as well as his recruitment – on Sunday, two players who were arguably most culpable in the defeat were Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, both signed by the 55-year-old.
And while rival bosses Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have built vibrant, exciting, attacking sides with clear identities at Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham, United look ponderous by comparison and are still searching for theirs under Mourinho.
His surly demeanour throughout his United tenure is also starting to wear thin.
Managing a club of their unique stature and global fanbase should be a privilege, but Mourinho has managed to make it seem like a burden he is forced to endure.
The negative tone he’s set has unquestionably filtered down to his players, many of whom are said to be disillusioned at his perceived lack of public support and ‘tough love’ man-management, while the thorny issue of his complex relationship with Paul Pogba continues to cast a shadow.
United are not yet in the vice-like grip of a full-blown crisis, but all the ingredients for a classic Mourinho implosion and dramatic mid-season exit are there, ready to ignite — just as happened in September 2007 at Chelsea.
Up next are Tottenham at Old Trafford next Monday, followed by a trip to Burnley that is their final game before Setpember’s international break.
Failure to win either of those games will increase the pressure, with a significant number of fans who had previously backed him now starting to question Mourinho’s position.
Of course, United’s current issues are magnified by the sense of euphoria at local rivals City, who are showing no signs of easing up on their record-breaking title win last season.
When United hired Mourinho and City appointed Guardiola in the same summer, Manchester seemed set for an absorbing rivalry. But while Guardiola has taken his Blues to new heights with football of balletic beauty, Mourinho has dragged their neighbours down with his rudimentary approach.
It is up to him to prove that is not the case, before United make that decision for him and start looking for their fourth manager in five years.
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