This week, Mourinho set about switching his targets, saying getting close to the top four in the Premier League was now the big aim. Going even further, he said United had a “responsibility to finish in the top six.”
The 2-2 home draw with Arsenal on Wednesday — United’s third straight draw in the league — was regarded as a “positive sign” by Mourinho, who praised the “heart and spirit” of his players rather than their quality. The atmosphere at the final whistle, meanwhile, suggested United’s fans were satisfied with the result, too.
Perhaps it was a reaction of loyalty and realism. After all, United did have to play a patched-up team because of a slew of injury concerns, and Arsenal was arriving at Old Trafford on a 19-match unbeaten run. But maybe it was also a sign of drift at United, a brutal acceptance of the team’s position in the new Premier League order.
Mourinho’s team is eighth in the standings after 15 games, behind Bournemouth and only two points ahead of Brighton. It has a negative goal difference, having conceded 25 goals — more than every club outside of the bottom five. It is eight points off the top four, and nearer to last place (Fulham) than first place (Manchester City).
As it happens, Fulham is the next visitor to Old Trafford on Saturday. It is surely a match Mourinho dare not lose, against an opponent that hasn’t kept a clean sheet all season, and against a rival manager in Claudio Ranieri whom Mourinho once said “has the mentality of someone who doesn’t need to win.”
The worry for United is that Fulham looks to be improving since Ranieri took over as coach last month as a replacement for the fired Slavisa Jokanovic. The southwest London club has a win, a draw, and a loss in three matches under Ranieri, and seems more solid as a team compared to the naive and open side that floundered under Jokanovic.
While Ranieri already seems to have a plan in place, does Mourinho? He has yet to field the same lineup this season and took the number of changes he has made to his starting team to 46 after switching seven players for the Arsenal game.
Tellingly, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku — the two most expensive players in United’s history — were on the bench, while Fred — the club’s fourth costliest signing, at $70 million this offseason — wasn’t even in the squad.
“There isn’t any space for people that are not ready to give it their all,” Mourinho wrote in his program notes written before his team lineup was announced.
The strained relationship between Mourinho and Pogba has been simmering for months, and it spoke volumes that France’s World Cup-winning midfielder didn’t make the team despite the fatigue and injury problems that were undermining Mourinho’s selection for the Arsenal game.
To make matters worse, United’s top scorer, Anthony Martial, might not be fit to play against Fulham after limping off in the second half against Arsenal, although Mourinho described it as a “pre-injury” after the winger felt tightness in his hamstring.
It has got to the point where United just needs a win — however it arrives, whatever the performance — so that the top four doesn’t get too far clear.
Otherwise, Mourinho might need to win the Champions League to get back in that competition next season, and potentially save his job.
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