Manchester United hoped Jose Mourinho would provide a quick-fix.
Hire the manager renowned as a “serial winner” and the stupor of the fleeting David Moyes and Louis van Gaal eras would vanish.
There’s little sign of that.
If anything, results and performances suggest the record 20-time English champions are regressing. Even Mourinho calls his team “fragile.”
With five losses in his opening 16 games, Mourinho has made a worse start than Alex Ferguson’s two immediate successors who never came close to winning the Premier League or Champions League.
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Under Mourinho, United is even a diminished force in the second-tier Europa League. A 2-1 loss to Fenerbahce on Thursday left United third in its group with only six points out of a possible 12.
Although Mourinho has previously expressed his disdain for UEFA’s Thursday night competition, the Portuguese coach doesn’t expect his team to slacken. There’s pride on the line, if little prestige.
“Our problem started in our global attitude,” Mourinho said, berating his team for treating for the game like a friendly.
The only encouraging moment in Turkey for United was Wayne Rooney ending a goal drought of almost three months – a moment of personal satisfaction, certainly for the 31-year-old captain. But there is little evidence Rooney, so ineffective for Mourinho, will provide any potency on Sunday at Swansea.
Rooney’s only goals this season have come against the Turkish league’s fifth-place team and Bournemouth. No team of any might has felt threatened by the presence of the fading Rooney.
While Rooney symbolizes some of United’s shortcomings, the burden of the blame shouldn’t rest on the striker.
There are clearly deeper flaws when the team goes through October without winning a single Premier League game, drawing three times and losing once on Mourinho’s humiliating return to Chelsea.
And in those four games, United has scored only once – failing even to find a way past promoted Burnley last weekend to drop to eighth in the league.
“Sometimes teams don’t score goals because of their philosophy, because the team isn’t aggressive enough and doesn’t risk enough,” Mourinho said.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic hit the ground running with four goals in four games after signing amid great fanfare in July, but since then the 35-year-old forward has looked his age by netting only once in 11.
“Some players in our attacking areas lack confidence,” Mourinho said. “They’re not sharp and getting the chances that they can.”
And the treatment room is getting crowded, too.
Center backs Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling were joined on the injury list on Thursday by Paul Pogba, who limped off with a thigh injury.
Not that Pogba, the world’s most expensive player, has been looking like a 105 million euro ($117 million) midfielder since rejoining the club in August.
Then there’s another of Mourinho’s signings: Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian played the last 30 minutes of the loss in Turkey after two months out of the team. But the attacking midfielder is a shadow of the player who scored 23 goals and set up another 32 last season for Borussia Dortmund.
“He has to do more, it is as simple as that,” Mourinho said. “We have big expectations in the club. We have lots of players for these positions and he has to play better than (Juan) Mata, he has to play better than (Jesse) Lingard, he has to play better than (Anthony) Martial.
“(Mkhitaryan) has to play better than them. It is as simple as that. Every manager in the world wants to win matches … I am no different.”
But something has changed with the two-time Champions League-winning coach, who is exhibiting the sullen and downbeat demeanor only seen later in his reigns at Chelsea, Inter Milan or Real Madrid.
United should have read the warning signs.
Maybe last season at Chelsea – when a title-winning team tumbled into the lower-reaches of the Premier League – was not a blip.
Can the 53-year-old Mourinho still find a way to innovate and rejuvenate United in the way Juergen Klopp has turned Liverpool into a title contender again or Mauricio Pochettino has refreshed Tottenham?
Sunday’s trip to south Wales offers the perfect platform to halt United’s four-match run without a win in the legaue against a Swansea side winless in nine and second-from-last.
Mourinho will certainly have a good seat to evaluate his team in Swansea, after being banned from the touchline for two separate offenses toward referees. But the view from the directors’ box might not be pretty, based on recent displays.