Jose Mourinho needs to lift Manchester United’s morale quickly as a deflating run of performances threatens to throw their season off track completely but he faces a daunting task against a revitalised Arsenal in the Premier League on Wednesday at Old Trafford, report agencies.
Mourinho has acknowledged Manchester United are unlikely to meet his target of climbing into the Premier League’s top four by the end of 2018.
However, the United manager has played down comments he made to Brazilian television suggesting that it would be a “miracle” if his team finished in the Champions League qualification places at the end of the season.
Mourinho set his players the challenge of reaching the top four by the end of December when they returned from the November international break to begin a run of eight league fixtures in the run-up to the New Year.
However, successive draws against Crystal Palace and Southampton, in which United produced below-par performances, has seen them slip to seventh and forced the manager to reassess that target. Mourinho, though, is adamant he still sees a top-four finish in May as realistic, despite not denying the comments he made to a Brazilian television interviewer after Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Southampton.
“I don’t know if I said it or if I didn’t but if I used that word, it is not what I feel at all,” said Mourinho at his press conference on the eve of their match with in-form Arsenal.
“We are eight or nine points from fourth, something like that. I don’t think we need a miracle at all. We need a good run of results. We need to not waste points that we shouldn’t waste.”
On their travels, they had looked as if they were getting back to form as October turned to November, with the side producing fine displays in drawing at Chelsea and beating Juventus. Yet perhaps those performances were just papering over the cracks. United recovered from a two-goal deficit to draw at Southampton on Saturday and Romelu Lukaku scored his first club goal since September 15 but there was much to be alarmed about.
United’s dressing room gives little indication of being a happy place ahead of Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford on Wednesday.
To prove the point, forward Juan Mata effectively declined to publish his regular Monday internet column this week, instead posting a short message that began: “Unfortunately, I feel as though it isn’t the time for posts.”During a season riddled with disappointments, Mourinho has by and large been treated sympathetically by the club’s fanbase, who feel that he was not given enough support in the last close-season transfer market by executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
The manager’s frustration at not being able to sign a top-class centre-back has been raked over repeatedly but his defensive team selection at Southampton baffled even his most loyal supporters.
With Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly unfit, Mourinho elected to play two midfielders — Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic — in a three-man central defence against a team that had not won at home all season. It did not work.
Failure to win on the south coast further damaged United’s chances of finishing in the top four — the ticket to Champions League qualification — and Mourinho himself appears to believe that is now a long shot with his team lagging eight points behind fourth-placed Arsenal.
Arsenal, like United, spent relatively little in the close-season, bringing in Bernd Leno, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi for relatively modest sums, yet look revitalised under Unai Emery’s management.
They have gone 19 games unbeaten in all competitions since losing their first two matches of the season, and are playing a thrilling brand of aggressive, high-pressing football.
Arsenal beat Spurs 4-2 at home to leapfrog their north London rivals into fourth spot on goal difference with 30 points but Emery believes improving his team’s away performance is vital if they are to continue their good form.
“If we’re stronger now, we need to (show it) on Wednesday… It’s a new match, a new challenge, a big challenge.
It’s away and we need to continue improving our mentality away,” Emery told a news conference. “We know we need to change to get more competitive away. I think the team is doing that, but it’s Manchester United away, and the challenge is bigger than other matches.
“It’s a very exciting match. The preparation for this match is also a big motivation for us. It gives me a big motivation for Wednesday.”
Jose Mourinho’s United side are struggling down in seventh place with 22 points after 14 games.