Time's up, Mourinho: Manchester United can dither no longer
Mohamed Salah was close, but his shot was just too high. It was Liverpool's 36th effort in their 3-1 win over Manchester United, the most the Red Devils have faced in the Premier League since Opta records began in 2003-04.
"Don't sack Mourinho!" echoed around Anfield, Gary Neville lamented more defensive lapses in a back line he described as resembling spaghetti Bolognese. Former club captain Roy Keane told Sky Sports: "I'm not surprised. I feared the worst."
Alex Ferguson was there, his face aghast. Ed Woodward, sitting alongside Bobby Charlton, hid his mouth as he muttered to the United great. The travelling fans were drowned out by the 'oles' of their hosts.
When was the last time the record English champions were humiliated like this?
26 - Manchester United have picked up 26 points after their first 17 Premier League games; their worst points haul in the top-flight at this stage since 1990-91 (also 26 points). Dip. pic.twitter.com/FI2avHKq1D
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 16, 2018
Meanwhile, Paul Pogba, the most expensive United signing in history, sat on the bench, hood up against the downpour. On the day a report in one national newspaper claimed the club are ready to sell him in January, Pogba, a World Cup winner this year, was never summoned to lead a rescue mission.
He watched Juan Mata go on, five minutes from the end. He watched Anthony Martial strip off and hobble into the fray, still carrying an injury. Marouane Fellaini had already been introduced at half-time. We probably won't find out what he was thinking, as he has apparently been banned from talking to the media.
United are now 19 points behind Premier League leaders Liverpool. They have conceded more goals (29) than they did in the whole of last season. They have won seven matches out of 17. They have a goal difference of zero.
Mourinho had his excuses ready. Whether it's injuries, not trusting his players to play "simply" or bemoaning his executive vice-chairman's parsimony in the transfer market, Mourinho has become a master of lowering expectations to make the job he is doing seem adequate.
When asked by Sky Sports if he can fix this team, he said: "What do you mean by 'fix'? Do you mean win the title? Of course not. We can still finish fourth. It's not easy. For sure, we are going to finish in the top six, like the other historically top teams. But the best we can get is fourth."
And does Pogba, do any of the players still play for their manager? "What is that, playing for me?" he said. "You are asking me if they are dishonest. I believe they are honest, and you believe they are dishonest. A football player has to give the maximum, every day, every match. It doesn't matter the manager."
Oh yes it does.
19 - Liverpool are now 19 points ahead of Manchester United – their biggest lead over them after the first 17 games of an English top-flight season (based on relevant points for a win rules). Gulf. pic.twitter.com/EKnJZlJ308
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 16, 2018
Going through in the Champions League, sporadic good results like beating Juventus away and concerns about pre-season recruitment have left a lot of United fans tolerating another season in the doldrums. Woodward has shared that sentiment. Why wouldn't he? The club's latest revenues are up six per cent.
Surely, though, Sunday's evidence cannot be ignored. This team, under this manager, are not in the same class as the rest of the "historically big teams". That is despite massive investment in the squad, even accounting for 2018's relative frugality (which included signing Alexis Sanchez and spending in the region of £50million on Fred).
Mourinho must go. Now. Not a month from the end of the season, like David Moyes, when the top four is mathematically impossible. Not after an improbable cup win glosses over a miserable six months, like Louis van Gaal. They both paid the price for missing out on the cash injection of Europe’s top competition. Mourinho's fate will be no different. Given his side are 11 points off the top four already, why prolong the inevitable?
United reportedly wanted a sporting director in place by November but have yet to choose their candidate. That figure must be appointed as soon as possible and given time to plot Mourinho's long-term successor, and the transfer plans that manager can expect.
Many would argue that naming an interim boss, like Ryan Giggs after Moyes' exit, would be to admit that their season is over. Well, it is. They cannot win the league. They will not win the Champions League. They might win the FA Cup. That is not enough; just ask Van Gaal.
The patience shown in Mourinho has been commendable, and the club's problems run deeper than him alone, but those 90 minutes in the glare of the Anfield lights cannot be considered acceptable. If United do not act, then their commitment to their own demise, like Liverpool's shot count on Sunday, will be bordering on the unbelievable.