Jose Mourinho is in unchartered waters. After Marcos Rojo unwittingly scored an own goal against Arsenal on Wednesday, David de Gea picked the ball out of his net for the 25th time in the Premier League this season.
Never before has the Manchester United manager overseen a season in which his side has performed so miserably defensively. Even in the calamitous 2015-16 campaign with Chelsea, which saw him unceremoniously sacked before the Christmas holidays, the Blues had taken 16 matches to concede 25 goals. United have played just 15 ahead of Saturday's clash with Fulham at Old Trafford.
For a man whose entire coaching reputation had been built first and foremost on his ability to forge a tough defensive base wherever he has gone, this is crisis territory.
After leading a Porto side in 2002-03 who only conceded their 25th league goal in their 32nd game, it would be another six years before any of his clubs allowed more than 24 in an entire season. And apart from that disastrous final term with Chelsea three years ago, no Mourinho team has shipped as many as 25 goals in fewer than 27 league matches.
When questioned about United’s difficulties, Mourinho has consistently pointed to some supposed high benchmark which was set by the Reds’ second-place finish last season, 19 points behind champions Manchester City. But for most United fans that was meant to be just the start. It had been considered that while the Portuguese wouldn’t necessarily bring flowing football to Old Trafford, he would at least provide an edge which would make them tough to break down.
With his long-time friend and trusted right-hand man, Rui Faria, alongside him, Mourinho’s habit of working from a solid core was so accepted that it was the stick with which many purists chose to beat him. But it is perhaps the loss of Faria in the summer which has gone some way to destabilising the manager’s time-honoured approach.
— Kris Voakes (@krisvoakes) May 13, 2018
“I never had a brother,” said Mourinho on the departing Faria in May 2018. “I had a sister who passed away many years ago. Rui is the one who is the closest to a brother. We spend more time with each other than we do with anyone else in our lives.”
In a city in which Mourinho continues to call a hotel suite his home, the loss of his closest friend and confidante must have hit him hard on a personal level over the last six months. But moreover, it has seemingly caused major disruption to his ability to get what he needs out of his side on a structural level so far this season.
Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick were added to the first-team coaching staff in Faria’s place as Mourinho decided to go for a more wide-ranging team of assistants than he had previously worked with, but the day-to-day impact of Faria on the training ground may only have truly come to light since he quit in the summer.
Like many assistant bosses before him, Faria has a desire to test himself as a manager and has taken this season away to spend some precious time with his family as he weighs up the possibility of entering the cut-throat arena that is being the No.1 at a club.
And in the meantime, there is a distinct lack of order on the training ground he left behind. With all the best will in the world, McKenna and Carrick have so far been unable to coax the kind of defensive discipline out of United that Faria was able to oversee wherever he and Mourinho went in the preceding 17 years.
While managers have the ultimate call on everything that happens, the role of an assistant boss can often be massively overlooked. But it is they who work every day with the players to cover the nuances of the game which need to be addressed in full in order to carry out what the manager desires come match day. And it is on the training pitch during the week that so many disciplines are taught and drilled that ultimately come to fruition when performed in the white-hot atmosphere of a Premier League match.
It is down to the assistant to deliver the manager's wishes to the players in a coherent and convincing manner, but it is also he who acts as a conduit between players and manager to ensure behaviours are kept in check too.
So perhaps it is no wonder that United’s back line has underperformed having lost such a key member of Mourinho’s armoury. When De Gea drops one in his own net, or Chris Smalling or Victor Lindelof are caught napping, or Nemanja Matic or Paul Pogba fail to track a runner, there are supposedly easy culprits to point a finger at. But it is through hard work on the training pitch that cohesion is honed, and that simply hasn't happened so far in 2018-19.
Whoever the manager has chosen to line up in the defensive half of the field this season there has appeared to be a missing link, and it might just be that it is that influence of Faria at Carrington each morning which has had the biggest say in United having set unwanted new records on the field this season.