The United manager has entered into a battle with the supporters in an attempt to improve the Old Trafford experience, but is it a war he can win?
Manchester United all but qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in four years on Tuesday night with a fourth consecutive Group A win, beating Benfica 2-0 at Old Trafford. But the latest sign of progress at the club came against the baffling backdrop of Jose Mourinho’s tussle with the supporters after another sly dig at the fan base in his programme notes.
The United manager launched an offensive after the 1-0 victory over Tottenham on Saturday when criticising the fans for apparent murmurings at Romelu Lukaku’s recent form in front of goal and the side’s general inability to entertain with their play of late. Then, ahead of the match on Tuesday he penned: “I hope that you enjoy the game more than some of you did against Tottenham.”
And while United again benefited from an error by rookie goalkeeper Mile Svilar to edge past the Portuguese side for the second time in a fortnight, there was a distinct lack of atmosphere being generated by the home fans once more at Old Trafford.
Mourinho’s complaints about the lack of support from the United faithful are not a new phenomenon. In January he previewed the visit of Liverpool by saying: “The players have to improve, I have to improve, the fans, I’m sorry, have to improve. My invitation is don’t come to the theatre, come to play, play with us.”
But the age-old issue of United fans being unable to replicate their extraordinary away support at Old Trafford has remained a bone of contention with the manager and it is an issue he is not about to let go.
He may see the end goal of cajoling the supporters into turning the Theatre of Dreams into a cauldron as being worth the ire that he has attracted thus far, but it currently feels like a battle he is destined to lose. If anything, it has made the home crowd suspicious of him rather than supportive, and it was notable on Tuesday that the Benfica fans were the ones making the majority of the noise. Chants of Jose Mourinho’s name were also notable by their absence.
It is a great shame that such drama is taking away from the achievements on the pitch when considering the stark contrast between recent United campaigns and this one. They are sitting in second place in the Premier League heading into the winter months and have practically breezed past the first hurdle in the Champions League. Neither of those two things has happened since Sir Alex Ferguson hung up his stopwatch five seasons ago.
The match itself seemed secondary to the storyline, even if United got another helping hand from Svilar. The youngster must have thought he’d exorcised the ghost of his Champions League debut when he kept out Anthony Martial’s 15th-minute penalty, but he inadvertently put United ahead on the stroke of half-time when Nemanja Matic’s long-range effort off the foot of the post cannoned off the Belgian’s back and into the net.
Following on from his mistake in Lisbon two weeks ago which saw him carry Marcus Rashford’s deep free-kick over the goal-line, this was another moment to forget for the 18-year-old. He would later be beaten by Daley Blind from the penalty spot after substitute Rashford was pulled down by Andreas Samaris.
For United it feels like we might have reached a critical point in Mourinho’s stewardship. The 54-year-old is not the type to let a matter drop, and the United fans are not about to cave in to their manager’s pleas while his side are delivering functional rather than fantasy football.