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United's fall to mediocrity is hard even for its haters to watch

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Monday, December 17, 2018 – Page B12

TORONTO -- Historically, there has been no surer way to win friends in the international soccer community than to announce your hatred of Manchester United.

With its wealth and tendency to preen, United made itself an easy target.

It went on like that for a very profitable quarter-century - United winning things and, just as important, selling things, which in turn led to more winning and selling.

Everyone who begrudged United also admired it. The club had figured it - whatever "it" is - out. A club from a second city in northern England had discovered sport's cold fusion - a formula for perpetual excellence.

Which goes to prove, once again, that nobody really knows anything. Some people just have a more convincing way of telling you about what they don't actually know.

United, the biggest football club there is or has ever been, is in freefall. There is disarray on every front. It has got so bad that something that seemed impossible two years ago - Manchester United settling into permanent mediocrity - is now on the table.

On Sunday, it played traditional rival Liverpool. United was a distant sixth in the Premier League standings; Liverpool looking to go first. This was a big game.

Although fully fit, United's best player, Paul Pogba, was on the bench. No one knows exactly why, apparently not even Pogba. The 11 guys who started might as well have been sitting beside him for all the good they did. The lassitude of their play, the seeming indifference, was remarkable.

Liverpool won 3-1 - the only United goal coming via a goalkeeping blunder. Liverpool had 36 shots in the match; United only six. The word "swamped" covers it.

Afterward, United's increasingly hangdog manager, Jose Mourinho, tried his very worst to make it seem okay.

He repeatedly referred to his team's performance as "controlled," which we must suppose is Mourinho-ese for "tired and bored."

"I think we have the possibility to do much more points in the second part of the season than we did in the first part," Mourinho said.

He was speaking about the hope that United will rise to fourth in the Premiership, and so qualify for next year's Champions League.

If a United manager had said something like that 10 years ago, the room would have burst into laughter. United? Fourth?? Tell me another one.

Now it's become magical thinking.

Whatever has gone horribly wrong in the past couple of years - and there's a lot of that - it starts with the man in charge.

This was Mourinho's dream job. He was said to have been devastated when it was not offered to him after manager-for-life Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.

United's slide began then with a bad hire (David Moyes) and a rolling series of illconceived signings. Ferguson continued on in an ad-hoc role as the club's wise man, but no director of soccer operations was hired.

For the past five years, it has never been clear who's driving the bus. It's sometimes hard to tell who's allowed on the bus. Or if there even is a bus.

Mourinho was the logical fix for that - the world's easiest-to-dislike club hiring the world's easiest-to-dislike coach. His long record of success and delightful smugness fit perfectly with United's brand.

But instead, Mourinho has apparently been undone by the size of the job.

From the off, he went to war with the club's executive, its players and, increasingly, reality. He pushed for Pogba's signing for what, at the time, was a worldrecord fee. Once he had the player he wanted, Mourinho set about alienating him.

Pogba is gifted enough to be the best soccer player alive. He rarely looks anywhere close to it in United red.

Last summer, he was the fulcrum in France's World Cup-winning side. Then he returned to Manchester and resumed his averageness.

Pogba's relationship with Mourinho deteriorated further. There was a trainingground bust-up. He's been a healthy scratch for several league games. As with most things, Mourinho speaks elliptically about what's going on. Pogba won't talk about it at all.

But it's hard to contend that humiliating your primary human resource is an example of good management. And it's tough to complain about your lack of world-class players when you won't play the classiest one you've got. Yet Mourinho routinely engages in that sort of sophistry.

This year, Mourinho's big off-season signing was the Brazilian, Fred. Now that he has him, Mourinho's decided he doesn't like Fred either. He hardly ever plays. Mourinho won't say why.

The defence - nearly all of whom were purchased at huge expense on Mourinho's watch - are another regular target of his displeasure. Since he can't bench those guys, Mourinho contains himself to publicly wishing he could replace all of them.

This has led inevitably to a more serious problem - no one wants to play for Mourinho. Not the players he already has, nor the ones who would until quite recently give anything to suit up for the biggest outfit in the game. When the rumour mill churns these days, United is rarely mentioned.

Even the youth academy is clearing out, with the best childhood talent preferring to cross town and join up with Manchester City.

It's not yet Christmas - the halfway point of the Premiership season - and United's year is already a washout.

Mourinho probably should be fired immediately, but since that would be an admission of total surrender, he may be allowed to limp to the end of the campaign.

The issue now is completely reimagining this squad, top to bottom. Despite United's wealth (club value: $5.5-billion), FIFA Fair Play rules make that impossible to do all at once. The rebuild must be done over time.

The first step will be convincing the best young players in the world that this is still a team worth joining. Given Mourinho's continued presence, Pogba's predicament, United's likely lack of Champion's League exposure next year and the absence of any recognizable authority figure on top, that's going to be awfully difficult to manage. Very close to impossible.

It's almost sad. Resenting United was fun.

But feeling sorry for it? That's a new one.

Associated Graphic

Liverpool's Naby Keita and Manchester United defender Matteo Darmian battle for the ball during a game in Liverpool on Sunday. United's defence is often a target of Jose Mourinho's rancour, with the manager publicly wishing to replace them all.


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