Jose Mourinho running out of time to boost Manchester United's squad
It was after a September 2016 Europa League game vs. Feyenoord that I first heard it suggested. "Do you think Mourinho is finished? I can't see him being here too long if this is what it's like," a journalist said after Manchester United had been beaten 1-0 in Rotterdam.
Jose Mourinho had been manager for three months and United, who had been beaten at home days earlier by Manchester City and would lose at Watford the following weekend, were mired in a run of three straight defeats. That they began the 2016-17 season with three straight Premier League wins had long been forgotten.
Nearly two years later, Mourinho continues to divide opinion. There are many who would love to see him walk away or sacked; they think he is yesterday's man and do not like what United have become under him.
Among fans, Mourinho still holds support from the majority. However, it slipped during the second half of last season, the lowlight of which was a Champions League exit vs. Sevilla, and it will get into dangerous territory if the upcoming campaign starts badly.
Throughout preseason, Mourinho has griped due to not having a full squad of players to work with and because the players he wanted to sign have not arrived. Is he right to be irritated?
Working without so many key men is not ideal, but was to be expected after the World Cup. Mourinho could have put a positive spin on the success of United's players in Russia but, when you've gone on record saying you hope Serbia go out of so Nemanja Matic can return sooner, it shows your frame of mind.
Few supporters have a problem with the club-over-country argument, but Mourinho has been backed in the transfer market. His net spend is £302 million; only Manchester City (£388m) have spent more.
The club has parted with £70m this summer but, despite spending around £30m each on Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof over the last two years, Mourinho wants to sign another central defender before the transfer window closes on Aug. 9.
Mourinho also sought a right-sided midfielder to add width; United's best play in a 2-1 ICC win against Real Madrid on Tuesday came down that flank, with stunning goals involving Alexis Sanchez, Juan Mata, Matteo Darmian and Ander Herrera.
The manager is frustrated -- I have covered United preseason tours since 1991 and never seen a boss so miserable as Mourinho this summer -- but getting players from increasingly wealthy clubs with no interest in selling is not easy.
Atletico Madrid, a fine recruiter and producer of talent, were a selling club at the start of this decade and United made their best signing of recent years, David De Gea, from there in 2011.
Now, Atletico sell on their terms. United wanted Antoine Griezmann and he wanted to move, but was reluctant to say so. That is another issue: Clubs often demand that, if a player wants to leave, he states it publicly.
Griezmann realised that such a move would kill the support he enjoys at a club he loves, although it was easier to stay with a team that was better than United and which was about to move to a huge new stadium.
Tottenham were also selling club a decade or so ago, when United bought Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov two years apart. However, Spurs are also building a new ground that will make them richer, so they too have no inclination or need to ship out their best players.
Even Leicester City, from whom United have tried to sign Harry Maguire, have a higher revenue than Milan. In general, clubs are taking the same approach to their contracted players as United with Anthony Martial and others: Refusing to sell.
What choice does that leave the player? Usually it is to knuckle down and carry on with the promise that he will be allowed to leave in the future, just as happened with Cristiano Ronaldo, who eventually went from Manchester to Madrid.
Then there are the rivals, the list of which has grown. Man City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain were not the threat in the transfer market 15 years ago that they are now.
United pitch themselves as the biggest club in the world and have the revenues to support such a claim, but struggle to buy the biggest players in part because they are not for sale at their peak.
Youth development is vital: Ronaldo, Bobby Charlton, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and George Best were all at the club in their teenage years, yet United let things slip at levels below the first team and will continue pay the price before their academy comes good again.
Elite players have choices and, put simply, United are not as attractive because they are no longer one of the best teams. Mourinho is a players' man, but not everyone wants to play for him and his United side can hardly be called thrilling.
Meanwhile, though the city of Manchester has improved immeasurably in the last 30 years, the weather remains a drawback to some foreign footballers.
Even Real Madrid have switched their transfer strategy from the galactico model to buying the best young players from their own country. Spain produces great footballers and, unlike those further down the Premier League, teams outside La Liga's top six need money.
It is against that backdrop, with deadline day three weeks earlier than in the past and while being quoted ridiculous prices for players who are far from world beaters in their position, that United go into the new season. It all means there is more pressure on Mourinho to work his magic with the very talented squad he already has.
Three years ago, United predicted that players would cost £200m by 2020. Unless swap or player-plus-cash deals can be done, it seems that the only way out of the current situation is to break the bank once again.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.