An illustration of the pressure Jose Mourinho may be feeling, and the sombre mood he has been in during Manchester United's tour of the United States, came at their UCLA training base this week.
The manager was due to sit down with a TV reporter who had travelled to Los Angeles for a pre-arranged interview on behalf of a prominent broadcaster. Yet just before it was supposed to happen, Mourinho pulled out. The journalist wandered off, only to be told the Portuguese had changed his mind again, and the interview took place.
Mourinho deserves credit for honouring the appointment. Yet as he embarks upon a third season in charge at United, he is still to turn the club into serious challengers for the Premier League title, which they last won in 2013 under Alex Ferguson
This is a pressing demand of his position that Mourinho surely carries with him. Factored in too should be how a third term has often proved a tipping point in his career. During both of his Chelsea tenures (2004-07 and 2013-16) and at Real Madrid (2010-13), it was at this stage that the wheels clattered off, though he did limp into the September of year four of the first Stamford Bridge stint.
The sparkle that made Mourinho the self-appointed Special One when he arrived in west London in 2004 has been rarely sighted stateside, although during the opening media conference at UCLA there was a flash when he spoke of his daughter’s graduation. “I would like to share one moment of happiness. Very sad not to be [there] but really happy and proud,” said the 55-year-old. “Our lives also have frustrations and one of them is not to be there but that’s the job [of management].”
It is Mourinho's professional frustrations that are feeding the low-key demeanour. He feels Ed Woodward, United's executive vice-chairman, should give him more backing in the market rather than instructing him to sell to buy. Then there is Mourinho's ongoing disaffection at the high number of players not in the US, mainly because of post-World Cup breaks.
Regarding the latter, the Portuguese began the trip without 13 senior players: Alexis Sanchez, Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Marcos Rojo, Victor Lindelof, Ashley Young, David de Gea, Nemanja Matic, Fred and Phil Jones.
It is a sizeable, notable group but many of United’s rivals have several frontline personnel missing for the same reason. And instead of complaining, Mourinho could have used the situation as a rallying cry to inspire those players who are with him, while sending a message to competitors and supporters that he is very much in control. Instead his mantra has been to brand United’s pre-season as “very bad”.
Compare this with Pep Guardiola’s take on Manchester City’s absentees during their own tour of the US. “I learned when a little boy in Barcelona, don’t find excuses. We are happy to have 16 players out – the most [of any club], that’s a good sign for the club. We are going to adapt, it’s a simple as that,” the Catalan has said.
In fairness to Mourinho, he has a point in regards to United's transfer business. So far this summer Fred, a €62 million Brazil-reserve midfielder, and Diogo Dalot, a €21.5 million Portuguese 19-year-old full back, are his only major purchases, with goalkeeper Lee Grant having also arrived from Stoke City for €1.7 million. That is underwhelming business with less than two weeks of the window remaining.
Mourinho began the summer targeting younger, more dynamic options at full back. He believes that for United to surge forward, as City do via Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young – both 33 when the campaign starts – have to be upgraded. Instead, he acquired the untested Dalot and was informed by Woodward that there will be no more additions in the position.
Since last summer Mourinho has also wanted a wide forward, but just as a deal for Inter Milan's Croatian World Cup star Ivan Perisic fell down then, there appears scant appetite from Woodward to prise him – or Chelsea's Willian – away this year. Mourinho may yet add the centre back he wants by acquiring Leicester City's Harry Maguire. But to close trading short of an A-list full back and forward would surely make title aspirations distant.
Put simply, the squad requires more stardust. Mourinho has only three X-factor footballers: Pogba, Sanchez and Lukaku. Guardiola, on the other hand, can call on nine: David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Agüero, Gabriel Jesus, Riyad Mahrez, Leroy Sane, Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Raheem Sterling. Yet part of management is improving players and here Mourinho must accept responsibility. He has not done what Guardiola has, to offer one case, with Sterling; turning an erratic performer and finisher into a 23-goal forward who was key in City's record championship triumph.
Under Mourinho the list of those enhanced might start with Lingard, Eric Bailly and Lukaku but it then ends abruptly. Even Rashford, a bright light before Mourinho's arrival, has gone sideways.
The pattern is similar regarding recruitment. Since taking over in 2016 Mourinho has signed Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Matic, Pobga, Lukaku, Sanchez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lindelof, Fred, Dalot and Grant. Of those who have played, only Matic, Bailly and Lukaku can be deemed successes.
Pogba is most indicative of Mourinho’s lack of success in the transfer market. Having struggled at United since returning to the club for a then world-record €105 million fee in August 2016, the midfielder was outstanding for France during their triumphant World Cup campaign, suggesting the manager rather than the player is the problem at Old Trafford. And the former has hardly done himself any favours here by applying more stick than carrot when asked about Pogba’s form in Russia.
Pogba needs to approach each match as if it were a final, was the essence of Mourinho’s analysis. This may be true but where was the praise to balance this and offer Pogba the sort of encouragement that might see him perform better for United?
Whether the reasons are valid or not, Mourinho’s mood has plunged south early. In the depths of mid-winter following some poor results a flatness would be understandable. But with the US sun blazing down and a new campaign around the corner, this is hardly the time or place to be downbeat. All in all, it does not augur well for United’s hopes or Mourinho’s long-term job prospects. - Guardian service