Jose Mourinho’s public criticism of Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling may have caused ripples in the news, but sources have told ESPN FC that there wasn’t much surprise in the Manchester United dressing room, even if the strength of the words raised a few eyebrows.
Some players had been expecting more. Shaw is a popular figure within the team, for example, but there are those who believe he needs to start learning to use criticism to motivate himself. Others are of the mindset that the same could apply to the whole squad and this group needs a reality check.
How to get that reaction from his players is Mourinho’s most pressing challenge right now. The Portuguese has never been a fan of the international break, and often publicly complained about having so few first-team players around, but this one could be of benefit. Since it is the last break until March, it will also be the last time Mourinho gets some time and space to think about his team without the usual onslaught of fixtures.
He will get the chance to reflect on his poor start at the club, and the issues he has to figure out.
It’s fair to say Mourinho’s time at the club has not matched expectations, but it is partly down to the fact that the club haven’t matched his expectations either. Sources told ESPN FC that although the Portuguese knew he had a big job at Old Trafford, and a lot to fix, it has been much worse than he realised.
Mourinho has mostly been frustrated with the lack of energy in the team. A manager who has built his career on instant impact — and, arguably, short-term results — hasn’t been able to derive the intense response he usually does. The confidence seen in the early wins over Bournemouth and Southampton has already faded away and he must figure out how to fire up these players again.
However, he has already come to the conclusion that he effectively needs a new defence. The Portuguese didn’t get the defensive leader he wanted in the summer, with Juventus’ £60 million-rated Leonardo Bonucci having been the main target, and has now lost one of his best centre-backs to injury, after Eric Bailly suffered a knee problem in the 4-0 defeat to Chelsea and was ruled out for at least two months.
Mourinho also wants fast full-backs to better facilitate his style of play. One big problem with the functioning of his current United team is that they are too slow carrying the ball up the pitch, and that both takes thrust from their attack and brings more pressure onto a fragile defence. Quick and solid full-backs would help to change that.
Some might say that Mourinho already has a player who fits that profile exactly, in Shaw, but he has fallen out of favour. That raises another big question for the United manager, and one he might be less willing to confront: how can he handle the players he does have? And is his hard-line approach still as effective?
The biggest mystery still hangs over Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and why a player signed for around £26m in the summer plays so little.
Sources have told ESPN FC that Mourinho has been frustrated with the Armenian’s failure to adapt to England so far, with doubts over whether he will be able to cut it in the Premier League. Mkhitaryan complains about the weather and rain in Manchester, for example, more than any other player. That has not gone unnoticed.
Mourinho is not ready to draw a line under him yet, though. He still feels Mkhitaryan is a top talent and that he is definitely improving. He will get game-time. But the question is whether he can enliven an attack that has looked devoid of tactical innovation.
As one source revealed, it too often seems that Mourinho’s main attacking approach is to get the ball up to Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the rest of the forwards to play off. That is exactly what he did at Chelsea with Didier Drogba in 2005, but that approach comes with two problems: Ibrahimovic is not the 2005 version of Drogba, and he is choosing to do so at a time when so many other managers are electrifying the Premier League with exciting, modern play.
That could change with added intensity. It makes everything else work. It means Mourinho’s relatively basic attacking is at least bolstered by his players competing with maximum application. But, right now, he isn’t getting the maximum out of this club.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.