The Brighton fans on the main stand’s concourse sang in unison when they saw Jose Mourinho on TV screens after Sunday’s match. “Sacked in the morning,” they hollered, later repeating the line in the direction of the away team’s bus. A few minutes earlier, 27,000 had sung: “Can we play you every week?” and “We want four” as their side beat Manchester United at home for the second time since May.
As Brighton know, having finished 91st out of 92 league teams for two straight seasons in the last 1990s, clubs can have vast swings in fortune. Slipping from one that regularly won the Premier League to one that regularly does not like is not comparable to those woes, but the United of August 2018 are a concern for their many fans. United supporters were appalled by what they saw on Sunday and the away end began to empty long before the final whistle.
As Mourinho fulfilled his post-game media commitments and spoke to various rights holders in the American Express Community Stadium tunnel, some of his players chatted with compatriots from the opposing teams; among them David De Gea and Juan Mata, who caught up with fellow Spaniard Martin Montoya. Nearby, as two security men guarded the United dressing room, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward walked past them to see the players inside.
Mourinho was downbeat when he spoke to media but explained he was not going to be critical of individuals as he had been too honest in the past with his appraisals. That might have saved Eric Bailly a “Mou Batters Bailly” headline, but it did not save the team as a whole from “Bullied by Brighton,” nor did Mourinho and Woodward escape widespread criticism.
Until the end of last week, when he did a series of positive interviews including a bombastic one in which he criticised Manchester City’s lack of class, Mourinho has not cut a contented figure for some time. Something does not seem right — with him and his team — although those Brighton fans’ prediction was never going to come true on Monday morning.
It is true that this is the fabled third season when, in the past, thigs have gone for him at clubs, but would United’s many problems be solved by changing one man? Let’s face it: Constant shifts in personnel have hardly served then club well in recent years.
Mourinho asked to be judged after three years, but the spring and the smiles have gone; even before yesterday’s match, he was tense as he watched his players warm up. He is the man who sets the tone and his rhetoric in interviews at the end of last week was an attempt to do that, but any positivity and impetus from the opening-night victory against Leicester quickly dissipated in that horror first half at Brighton.
It is wholly unfair only to blame the manager when he was failed by almost all of his players. The club’s recruitment has left much room for improvement in this decade, with more failures than successes. It is frustrating when players targeted but not signed — from Karim Benzema to Eden Hazard — have gone on to become among the best in the world.
Not since De Gea arrived in 2011 have United signed a player who has been an outstanding, world-class success, though strikers Robin van Persie and Zlatan Ibrahimovic had very good first seasons at Old Trafford. What is it that makes top players look so ordinary?
Contrast recent signings to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Edwin van der Sar, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra and Carlos Tevez, all of whom joined between 2002-07 and supplemented a youth system that has since been allowed to lose ground to better-resourced rivals.
At present, United are disjointed on and off the pitch, with different messages coming from the manager, the club and stand-in captain Pogba, who was as poor as the rest on Sunday and admitted it, which is more worrying.
Then, on Monday, Alexis Sanchez, who missed the Brighton game through injury and is the club’s best-paid player, tweeted adverts for underwear; the timing was worse than Bailly’s when he gave away a penalty in Brighton. The post, ill-timed at best, was subsequently deleted.
Bailly and Lindelof are not callow teens playing their first professional games, but experienced international footballers signed for £30 million each while Mourinho was manager. Both have talent, but they were outplayed by United-supporting forward Glenn Murray who turns 35 next month.
It was only one defeat, but it felt like much more. It was not isolated and it was not a blip, it was a dreadful, shameful day at a time when it was vital the team started the season well. And do not be fooled by the 3-2 scoreline, either: United were not in the game after going behind, despite Brighton losing captain Lewis Dunk after 19 minutes.
The season is still young and there is time to recover, but there was time for a fightback at 3-1 down on Sunday. Instead, there was limp surrender. Mourinho might have blamed mistakes, but equally worrying was his team creating just four scoring chances in 90+ minutes. That is not Manchester United; that is not acceptable.