So it comes down to this: Can Jose Mourinho ever produce the exciting and successful Manchester United side that fans crave? You sense they would accept the endless sideshow that comes with this manager — even accept not winning things — if they could see a team worth watching again.
In other words, can he reinvent himself as a coach in the way the late David Bowie did repeatedly as a rock star? Can Mourinho accept that the formula, which brought him so much success, does not work so well in the modern era?
One of Bowie’s signature tracks was called “Changes” and that is what Mourinho needs, with the biggest being in his approach on and off the pitch.
The old, largely pragmatic style is looking stodgy, outdated and ineffective, especially when set aside the exciting brand of football being played by Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and others.
Meanwhile, his moody, combative and confrontational personality — compared to the smiling, relaxed public relations of Jurgen Klopp or Mauricio Pochettino — has become tiresome. Mourinho still provides great copy, but no longer with the dash, charm and cheeky smile of distant days.
He asks for respect but gives little back, while the words “lower” and “profile” are just not in his vocabulary. Since when did he decide he would throw his players under the bus? What happened to the unbreakable bond he once had with his teams (notwithstanding his fallout with Iker Casillas and others at Real Madrid)?
Recent victims have even included a blameless, long-serving pro like Antonio Valencia, about whom Mourinho said in July: “He looks like he’s had too much holiday.”
In addition, after last week’s Carabao Cup defeat to Derby, was it necessary for the manager to say he knew United were in trouble if they had to use Phil Jones and Eric Bailly in the penalty shootout?
Alexis Sanchez, with only three goals in 23 games since his move from Arsenal in January, was axed for Saturday’s game at West Ham; Marcus Rashford has been rebuked for failing to warm down correctly after a Champions League game.
Then there is the ongoing feud of Mourinho with Paul Pogba who, in response to a request for comment on Saturday’s performance, shouted to reporters: “Do you want me dead?” All this has been played out in the full glare of publicity; nothing seems to be kept in house.
(Not that Pogba and his busy agent Mino Raiola have been blameless, with veiled criticism of tactics and undenied stories of a desire to play for Barcelona. Truth be told, Pogba might struggle to get a game at the Camp Nou playing as he often has for United.)
So relationships at Old Trafford are tense, morale is low and that is showing on the pitch. Mourinho’s job is apparently safe for now, but his only hope of salvaging the situation is to rip it up and start again. An amnesty, ceasefire; call it what you will.
Perhaps there also needs to be a clear-the-air meeting at which he might start by admitting a mistake or two although, to quote another famous rocker, sorry seems to be the hardest word.
Then there needs to be a commitment to playing in a more expansive fashion, especially at home, as well as a conscious effort to stop washing United’s dirty linen in public; you can guess what Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton think on that latter front, especially.
Mourinho is paid to get the best of Pogba, Sanchez and others but that is clearly not happening, so he has to address that issue urgently. More starts for Rashford and Anthony Martial might help and a bit of extra dynamism in midfield would not go amiss.
The defence, second-best in the Premier League last season, has only one clean sheet. That is not just the result of failing to buy a new centre-back in the summer and Mourinho’s decision to use young midfield man Scott McTominay on the right of a back three vs. West Ham bordered on the desperate.
The manager might argue he needs better support in the transfer market from executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to have a serious chance of revival, but the fact is Mourinho has more than enough talent to do much better.
There needs to be a sea change in the way this world famous club operates and that starts with Mourinho backing off a little, Woodward showing he is not only obsessed with the brand and bank balance and the players buying into a new project.
However, it might be too late for the manager to turn back a tide that may soon swamp him. Does he enjoy being United manager? It does not look like it while things continue as they are. Only change can save Mourinho; if not, he might as well go.