Opinion: What’s going wrong for José Mourinho at Manchester United?

  • José Mourinho has had an underwhelming start to his Manchester United career  
  • The Special One’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation isn't having the same impact at United as it did at Chelsea and Real Madrid
  • Mourinho needs to shake up his starting XI if he wants to unlock the true potential behind some of his world-class players

NQ's Adnan Riaz gives his thoughts on José's life at Manchester United so far. 

Adnan Riaz
NQ's Adnan Riaz

José Mourinho hasn't enjoyed the fruitful beginnings he had hoped for at Manchester United. The first ten Premier League matches under his leadership have left the club in eighth place, garnering only fifteen points in the process. To add some perspective, that’s two points less than Moyes’ campaign in 2013-14 and five less than the previous (and last) season under Mourinho’s predecessor, Louis van Gaal. Mourinho was kicked into the ground even further during his homecoming at Stamford Bridge this season, as his United side were battered and bruised in a 4-0 thrashing by Chelsea.

United were able to put on a convincing display before the international break with a 3-1 victory against Swansea, but Mourinho is far from being in a safe position. United’s next test, a match against an in-form Arsenal side, is where the Special One will be placed under extra scrutiny from the media and fans.

Not only will the bitter feud between Mourinho and Arsène Wenger intensify again, a climactic showdown already in the making, it's a match that will establish if United are still in contention for a title challenge or have any hopes for a top-four finish.

United’s style this season has had its fair share of brilliant moments, but that’s no different than it was under van Gaal. Maintaining consistency has been a problem for United, highlighted through a starting XI that hasn’t congealed together.

Pundit Ray Wilkins said in October that Mourinho doesn’t know what his main starting XI should be, and it’s hard not to disagree with that observation. Mourinho has a plethora of talent at his disposal, though it’s normally watching an uninspired United team drag itself over the finish line or dropping points after a momentary lapse in concentration.

Bringing in an experienced mercenary like Zlatan Ibrahimović initially sent a powerful statement of intent, mainly for how the Swede possesses such a deadly goal-scoring prowess. That was coupled with United smashing the world-record fee to sign Paul Pogba from Juventus, offering the side a physical presence they’ve lacked since Roy Keane’s departure in 2005. Two of Mourinho’s marquee signings have failed to live up to the high expectations placed on them. It’s drained the momentum from the team, especially for how their presence alone should have shaken most Premier League teams to the core. Adding to Mourinho’s woes is an out-of-form Wayne Rooney drawing criticisms week in, week out.

The problem for Mourinho might lie in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, a setup he previously used at Real Madrid and Chelsea. At Madrid, for example, Mourinho could deploy a lone striker and have additional pace and firepower provided by the likes of Ángel Di María and Cristiano Ronaldo. In contrast, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial are struggling to have a similar presence in their positioning, which isn’t allowing them to have the same game-changing impact.

Playing Ibrahimović as the lone striker is where United are shepherding a lot of their problems. The fact is Ibrahimović isn’t getting any younger, especially in a league known for its fast-paced counter-attacking football. Mourinho could shake up his team by either placing a second sticker alongside Ibrahimović or replacing him with one of his other choices. It’s not even like United are limited on their attacking forwards. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, both promising talents, need to be deployed in that role. Considering Ibrahimović will be serving a suspension against Arsenal, it’s time for either Martial or Rashford to demonstrate to Mourinho their clinical finishing, positioning and willingness to take on players. It could be a real eye-opener for the Special One.

Pogba’s fantastic performances this season have been overshadowed by a lack of consistency from the Frenchman. No, Pogba doesn’t need to score every match — he's not Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, despite what the price tag may suggest — but he needs to be more central and influential in every move. Mourinho’s triumphal 2014–15 campaign with Chelsea owed a lot to Nemanja Matić, who played his role of defensive midfielder to near perfection. He dictated moves from his position, pushed up forward and showed off his physical presence, all the while reinforcing the back four.

It's been a problem for Pogba to wield the same influence that Matić had, owing to the fact that he’s been paired alongside the wrong person. Marouane Fellaini is more of a stumbling block to Pogba, proving to be reckless, clumsy and pushing forward when it should really be the Frenchman doing so. Michael Carrick is the key to unleashing Pogba’s strengths. Carrick has proven time and time again how much impact he can have on a match. He’s a composed, experienced character in the team, and his presence alone reassures most fans that the midfield is at its best for a match. Bastian Schweinsteiger, despite the injury-plagued career he’s had at United, should not have been relegated from the first team either. For Pogba, having a rotation between Carrick and Schweinsteiger would be everything he would need in an experienced holding partner.

The biggest travesty in the Mourinho era has been Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s lack of time on the pitch. Okay, the Armenian has been injured, but Mourinho has shown very little interest in getting him back on the pitch. Mkhitaryan was lethal for Borussia Dortmund last season, taking home Bundesliga Players' Player of the Season and finishing with fifteen assists in the league (the highest). The last thing United fans want is Mkhitaryan to be another repeat of Shinji Kagawa.

Former United star Owen Hargreaves expressed his desire to have Mkhitaryan back in the team, saying that the team is defensively sound and it’s time to shake it up by having the Armenian live up to his reputation. Considering Wayne Rooney has proven he’s not suited for the role behind the striker, Mourinho needs to fix this issue ASAP and, worryingly enough, the answer is lying directly in front of the Special One. A rotation between Juan Mata and Mkhitaryan would add a layer of depth to that position. It’s frustrating to see Mkhitaryan watching a match from the crowd (and not even from the bench!), especially when his former Dortmund teammate, İlkay Gündoğan, is adapting to the league and making an impactful presence at Manchester City.

Mourinho has had a shaky start to his season, but the final part of 2016 must be a redemption period for the Special One. If United continues to stumble, it will be easy to write off the team’s title ambitions or even securing a place for next season’s Champions League. Sure, it might be Mourinho’s first season in charge, but the Premier League isn’t as forgiving as other leagues out there.

Mourinho knows this well enough after his previous spell at Chelsea. Mourinho’s legacy will be defined by his tenure at United; there’s no bigger role out there for the Special One than the hot seat at Old Trafford. It’s time for Mourinho to live up to his reputation as the Special One and rebuild United to the same calibre it once was under Sir Alex Ferguson.