With his team trailing by three goals and Old Trafford rapidly emptying around him, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho stood in his technical area and stared blankly on to the field.
There was an air of helplessness around one of the game’s most decorated coaches who was facing the biggest home loss of his career and the prospect of losing two of the season’s first three league games for the first time at any of his clubs.
Mourinho would go on to praise his team after the 3-0 loss to Tottenham – “from a strategic view, we didn’t lose”, he said, “from a tactical view, we didn’t lose” – and defend his own record as a manager in a stormy news conference in which he demanded “respect, respect, respect”.
The Portuguese manager still retains the support of the Old Trafford hierarchy, yet Mourinho surely knows United are in a hole. He even predicted this would happen in one of his gloomy pre-season statements, when he said “it will be a difficult season for us” if he didn’t get any defensive reinforcements (which he didn’t).
There were some eye-opening comments after the loss to Tottenham, highlighting the identity crisis that might be enveloping United. And there’s also Mourinho’s despair about a defence that has already let in seven goals in the first three games – the most United have conceded in 49 years.
Also of concern must be the inconsistent displays of his two marquee players, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez. Then there’s the manager himself: Is he missing long-time assistant Rui Faria? Is he sending out the right signals with his off-field surliness and pessimism?
United have fielded five different players at centre back – one being a midfielder, Ander Herrera, bizarrely playing out of position against Tottenham in a back three – in their last two games and conceded three goals in each of them. Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof played like strangers in the 3-2 loss to Brighton, while Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Herrera lost their shape in the second-half collapse against Spurs when the visitors scored all of their goals.
A strong defence has been the foundation for most of the successful teams Mourinho has managed down the years. So it was alarming when he said after Monday’s defeat: “I don’t know my best back four.”
Left-back Luke Shaw has been one of the few positives this season – Mourinho made a point of going straight to Shaw at the final whistle and patted him on the back – but full-back is also a problem position, with United having relied on ageing, converted wingers Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young there last season.
Before the campaign kicked off, United’s pre-season tour of the United States was marked by the general negativity of Mourinho, who was unhappy about, among other things, the absence of the team’s World Cup stars, the lack of quality in his younger fringe players and the fact that winger Anthony Martial didn’t return quickly enough after the birth of his child. His dark mood has continued into the season. On Friday, he turned up 30 minutes early to a news conference at United’s training base and answered 13 questions in barely four minutes. Then came his “respect, respect, respect” rant on Monday when he railed against the media’s treatment of him.
Mourinho insists everything is rosy behind the scenes at United but what must his players feel when they see his public outbursts and often glum outlook?
In such strained times, he might also be missing Rui Faria, who left United at the end of last season after spending 17 years as Mourinho’s No 2.
For a serial winner such as Mourinho, results have always mattered more than the style of play. But has the criticism United received for their sometimes-defensive approach under Mourinho got to him? “I need to know what’s the most important thing,” Mourinho asked reporters on Monday, “if it is to play well or win matches? To play offensively, or for a certain result?”
Is Mourinho even sure anymore? He said he sent his team out against Tottenham to be aggressive, to press high and to attack, but that won’t always be the case for an inherently pragmatic coach such as Mourinho. There appears to be confusion surrounding United’s approach and it might not be helping two of his star players.
Sanchez, who didn’t start against Spurs, played with freedom at Arsenal but seems to be restricted at United, where he is tasked with more defensive duties, while after an impressive display in the opening-day 2-1 win over Leicester, Pogba has been a shadow of the player who starred at the World Cup for France.