A month ago, when England were looking forward to a World Cup semi-final and as pre-season training for Europe’s major clubs was just getting started, Manchester United’s final US tour match against Real Madrid had a major question mark over it.
Gareth Bale would be involved. But who for?
Fast forward four weeks and, though England did not find their utopia, Bale is happy enough, laughing and joking with his Real team-mates in Miami, his short-term future at the Bernabeu assured by new coach Julen Lopetegui.
But as they prepare for Wednesday’s game, the question mark over United remains. If anything, it is bigger than before.
Manager Jose Mourinho’s comments in the labyrinth of rooms at the Michigan Stadium on Saturday after a 4-1 loss to Liverpool saw to that.
So, it is time to ask the question. What is going on with Mourinho and Manchester United?
Why does Mourinho seem so unhappy?
In front of the cameras, Mourinho has not been a jovial character for some time.
Something – probably the scars of dealing with the Madrid media during his time as Real boss – happened between his first stint at Chelsea and his second. Whatever it was, it has taken away the public geniality of the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’.
Nevertheless, the breadth of the targets he fired at during his tetchy 10-minute post-match news conference after the loss to Liverpool was jaw-dropping.
He lamented the absence of senior players, decried the standard of some of the younger ones who are here, wistfully reflected on a transfer target he will not get, highlighted inactivity on one he still expects to, expressed frustration at injuries, invited senior players to return to training early, and questioned why supporters would pay to watch his team.
In a less well-publicised part of his news conference, he thanked defender Eric Bailly for stepping in to replace another senior player – Chris Smalling – at the weekend, then immediately rejected the Ivorian as a leader. Speaking to United’s TV station, he accused new captain Antonio Valencia of returning from his summer break out of shape. In addition, he ridiculed the standard of a referee who gave two penalties against his team.
Wide-ranging is a good description.
The key point is this: does Mourinho harbour a growing sense of genuine unhappiness at all these supposed sources of irritation, is he trying to make points, or is he attempting to deflect attention from a heavy defeat at the hands of a major rival?
If it is the last of those, it is a long-established managerial tactic. The middle one could go either way. But if it is the former, then a stereotypical full-blown third-year explosion – the type Mourinho is always so quick to reject when asked about – is on the way.
Is his relationship with the club strained?
There are two reactions to what Mourinho did on Saturday.
One is to raise an eyebrow, say it is typical of him, express sympathy with his situation and move on.
This is exactly what a number of influential people within the club are doing. After all, the Portuguese signed a new contract in January that not only improved his terms, but extended his tenure to 2020.
The relationship between Mourinho and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has repeatedly been described as strong by both men, so, presumably, potential conflict areas within summer transfer dealings would have been covered within the negotiations. It is also probable a vision for the short-term future would have been agreed. Why would that suddenly change because one transfer target was missed – which is only what has happened in the previous two summers?
An alternative view, and there are other long-standing United figures who are leaning towards this, is Mourinho wants out, and this is the start of his exit strategy.
One thing that is certain is that, for the first time in his illustrious managerial career, Mourinho will not have Rui Faria by his side this season.
The pair have been inseparable since Mourinho appointed Faria – a man he describes as “a brother” – assistant at Uniao Leiria in 2001.
However, last season, Faria – feeling he wasn’t getting to see enough of his family and exhausted by the pressures of day-to-day involvement at the very top of the game – decided to take a break.
Mourinho has opted not to bring in a direct replacement. In Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna, he has added both a club stalwart who has huge knowledge of the game and an appetite to learn, and someone whose reputation at both United and previous club Tottenham is enormous.
Given United finished last season 19 points behind arch-rivals Manchester City – whose manager Pep Guardiola vies with Mourinho for the title of greatest manager of their generation – and have not done much to suggest the gap can be closed, Saturday’s comments are being interpreted by those who have adopted the exit-strategy theory as the start of a long goodbye.
Are United at risk of falling behind their rivals?
United’s only significant signing so far this summer has been Brazil midfielder Fred. Another central defender is expected, although who that is remains uncertain.
Nevertheless, both men will be among the top six most expensive players United have ever bought.
Of the other four, only Argentina forward Angel di Maria is no longer at the club. In midfielder Paul Pogba and forward Anthony Martial, two remain who have not come close to performing at their top level on a consistent basis.
Mourinho was not responsible for Martial’s arrival from Monaco. His view is the Frenchman goes missing at key times, hence his keenness to sign Croatia’s Ivan Perisic, both last summer and this, from Inter Milan.
The 55-year-old was responsible for Bailly, fellow defender Victor Lindelof and forward Alexis Sanchez – for a combined fee of just under £100m. They are yet to make a significant impact at Old Trafford.
At the same time, there is an element of the unknown about all United’s major rivals.
Manchester City’s only summer signing is Riyad Mahrez, an attacking player the champions arguably do not need. Tottenham have signed no-one yet. Arsenal’s most expensive addition of the brief Unai Emery era so far is Uruguay midfielder Lucas Torreira who, at £26m, cost just over half the £47m United have spent on Fred. Chelsea did not even appoint their new manager, Maurizio Sarri, until after pre-season training had started.
Of all the major clubs, Liverpool are the ones who appear to have significant forward momentum. Yet three of their four major signings – midfielders Naby Keita and Fabinho, and goalkeeper Alisson – have never played in the Premier League before.
So, while it is easy to feel United are going backwards, it can be argued that if Mourinho gets more from the players he has already invested so much in, they won’t be far away from the major prizes.
What does it mean for United’s season?
As with all clubs, results can quickly change perceptions.
The Red Devils open the Premier League as a whole when they entertain Leicester on 10 August.
Mourinho has already highlighted how much easier the build-up to the new campaign has been for Foxes boss Claude Puel, given so few of his players were at the World Cup in Russia.
This is true. But Jamie Vardy and Harry Maguire were away with England until the semi-final stage, and Mahrez has been sold.
Will they cause an upset on the opening day? Perhaps not; it is so long since Leicester won at Old Trafford the match-winner, in 1998, was Tony Cottee.
The Foxes may have won the Premier League more recently than United, yet nothing that has happened since suggests they are close to the level Mourinho’s side are capable of reaching on home soil.
After that, United have trips to Brighton and Burnley, who could be going into the game on the back of a sixth successive Thursday night appearance in the Europa League.
Between those two away fixtures is a Monday night date with Tottenham on 27 August. As well as not making a signing so far this summer, Spurs had eight players involved on the last weekend of the World Cup, compared to United’s seven.
So of all the big clubs expected to be challenging for major honours, Spurs are arguably in an even worse situation than United when it comes to their preparation for what lies ahead.
As Arsenal have matches against Manchester City and Chelsea over the first two weekends, it leaves Liverpool as the only ‘big-six’ club who do not meet a rival before the first international break.
So, while Mourinho has legitimate grounds to grumble at the difficult build-up he is having to work around, most of his managerial adversaries are in a similar position.
By the time that Burnley trip is done and the top-flight season halts for its first international break, much more will be known about where United – and everybody else for that matter – actually are.
From there, Mourinho’s pronouncements will have much more meaning.