At which point can Jose Mourinho be judged as Manchester United manager? Many United fans would say not yet, but their place as meek bystanders to a burgeoning Premier League title race — United are eighth, eight points behind leaders Manchester City — was not what they had been promised this summer.
Despite failing to beat Burnley in Saturday’s 0-0 draw after 37 shots on goal, Mourinho is granted patience because he is neither David Moyes nor Louis van Gaal, predecessors who melted under the pressure at Old Trafford. Though his starting record is already worse than Moyes’ single season and Van Gaal’s in 2015-16, historic glories are insulating the Portuguese. That’s despite actions that saw him collect a 13th banishment from the bench on Saturday — and his second Football Association charge in a week.
United are stuttering where previous Mourinho teams staged their relentless drives from the get-go; naked determination augmented by the manager’s distraction policy of relentless self-publicity.
Each of his Porto, Chelsea (both times over), Inter Milan and Real Madrid teams picked up momentum quickly. Only at Real in 2010-11, where he was held off by Pep Guardiola’s final Barcelona title, and Chelsea in 2013-14, where his team ran out of legs in the run-in to finish third, did he not lift a title at a first time of asking. His first Chelsea season (2004-05) saw him lose just six games all season — and only one in the Premier League. By contrast, Mourinho’s United have lost four of their first 20 — three in the league.
If his United side resemble any previous Mourinho models then it is those periods at Real Madrid and Chelsea when his spell had faded. It might be of concern to United fans that Mourinho currently resembles the angry and disgruntled figure sacked last December by Roman Abramovich far more than the wisecracking charmer of the mid-2000s. The enjoyment of his supposed dream job seems to have disappeared quickly.
His knowing quips are absent; his charisma confined to the cupboard. Surly “Einstein” jibes at local media are low-grade material that the accomplished stand-up comedian of old would have left on the cutting-room floor.
Mourinho, once so energised when big games came around, can only point to a 4-1 defeat of champions Leicester on Sept. 24 as anything resembling a Premier League result of promise. The next best was a 0-0 draw at Liverpool on Oct. 17 where attacking football was surrendered in pursuit of a clean sheet. Compared to the high energy outputs of City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham, United’s football is sluggish, and much less effective.
The multi-layered strategies of his finest hours, where adversity fired invention, have not been seen much this season. The half-time substitutions of Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, during the 2-1 Manchester derby defeat of Sept. 10, were necessary corrections of a failed team selection and not ruthless, creative ploys. United resorted to “Route One” having been overrun by Pep Guardiola’s men and were held off as they chased a draw.
Last week’s EFL Cup win, where a callow City team was beaten 1-0 by an almost full-strength United, was hardly the sweetest of revenge; Mourinho was already shouldering the embarrassment of losing 4-0 to Chelsea on his return to Stamford Bridge the previous Sunday.
If Mourinho is no longer the quick-fix manager, there are few signs of a philosophical evolution towards a slow-burning master plan. Mkhitaryan’s disappearance since that derby defeat is the most striking example of a player being distractedly pushed around like room-service food on a Lowry Hotel tray, but there have been others.
Bastian Schweinsteiger has made a mysterious return to first-team training, while Morgan Schneiderlin joins the missing list having only made one substitute appearance in the league this season. United have won every game in which Michael Carrick has featured, yet the veteran has played just 12 minutes of Premier League football. The coup of landing Paul Pogba for a world-record fee from Juventus will be swiftly forgotten if a system to bring the best from the Frenchman is not forged — a hard task without a real ball-winner to add bite to the tepid midfield.
Mourinho’s Porto, Inter and first Chelsea teams were devotees to a manager bringing career-best performances from them, yet only Ander Herrera has transcended his previous United form — the star in that rearguard Anfield effort was sent off on Saturday and has stood out for his aggression, but he needs more help. With Juan Mata blogging on Manchester’s cultural charms, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic happy to swap shirts with opponents, there arises the implausible prospect of a Mourinho team being too nice, where once they snarled their way to victory.
Ibrahimovic has not scored a Premier League goal since the loss to City in September, his negligible impact surely begging his manager to make a big call that he’s already been wrestling with over Wayne Rooney. However, the youthful alternatives are hardly flushed with form. Marcus Rashford, confined to the wing, has not scored for six matches, while Anthony Martial has struggled with injuries and a lack of faith from his manager.
A failure to find answers to that wealth of questions will surely bring Mourinho’s doubters out in their droves, but there is certainly a growing concern that the Portuguese is not the man to lead United forward.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.