Reaction from United’s capitulation at Wembley.
Smalling and Jones
How many times I have tweeted over the past few months that if you play Arsenal level defenders you can expect Arsenal level results?
Nipun and I had a timely conversation about Phil Jones on the podcast last week where I conceded that he had been our best defender that season. However that does come with a caveat; it’s like saying Wes Brown was our best defender in that period when Rio Ferdinand was suspended in 2004.
He was, and Brown potentially had that ability to star in a United defence that challenged for trophies (really, comparing Smalling and Jones to Brown is an insult to the latter), but United were dreadful in defence in that period and it was an area of concern for Alex Ferguson, who later signed Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra to rectify it.
Phil Jones and Chris Smalling make too many critical errors for United to succeed at the highest level. It was a minor miracle in footballing terms that Jose Mourinho won a European trophy with Smalling.
In games like today, when those errors come early, United are left chasing the match, leaving them prone to more errors.
It was put to me on Twitter that perhaps United’s poor defence is a reason for Mourinho setting up defensively in big games (more on that in a second). And yes, it’s a consequence that bad defenders undermine other players (Matic, for example, having his worst game for the club) but all great United teams have had a strong defence. United don’t have that, and until such time as they do, they won’t have a great team.
No United fan wants their team to lose but if Mourinho had seen his team punished by the scoreline his defence deserved today – and we are talking about a scoreline that should have been five or six – then surely the manager would have seen enough to make sure at least three of those players do not play in United’s defence again.
Who’s at fault?
Ever since Cameron Jerome danced through that defence in December 2015, that problem has been clear. And so even if it was a problem Jose Mourinho inherited, four transfer windows in, there has been enough time for the problem to be rectified. So the manager has to shoulder some responsibility.
Lindelof and Bailly have been signed and neither played for whatever reason. And let’s put the spending by both Manchester clubs into perspective – Smalling and Jones were signed in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Pep Guardiola has spent £110m on Stones and Laporte, a further £75m was spent to get Otamendi and Mangala, and those four names were added to Vincent Kompany, the league’s best defender, when fit.
Mourinho is able to invest heavily but he cannot spend £100m on defenders when he is spending £75m on Lukaku and £40m on Matic. Lindelof came in for £30m, one player, while City had the resources to buy an entirely new defence and a £30m sub defender. If they are the best United have to offer at the present time and if the going rate is what Manchester City are paying then United will have pay around £250m in the summer in that area alone. It won’t happen.
That’s the perspective, but the bottom line is that two years in, Smalling and Jones shouldn’t be playing in big games for Man Utd, and that ultimately comes down to the manager.
Harry Kane’s eager advancement on kick off meant that the first goal shouldn’t have stood. United also should have had a penalty early in the second half. Would VAR have made a difference? Commentating for NBC SN’s coverage in the United States, Peter Drury opined on the first incident that the referee is hardly likely to bring the game back for that ‘otherwise they’d be doing it every week’.
Surely the purpose of VAR, if it is to be brought in, is to eliminate the grey areas? As it happens, this writer is against the idea of VAR, and yes, perhaps United were hard done by. The handball in particular is a point – it was said that it wasn’t intentional. Again, a pretty loaded word. This isn’t to say United deserved anything from the game, and not really a reflection on the refereeing decisions, but arguing the point about VAR when the conclusion is that it isn’t clear is really a great enough argument against it.
Too many cooks
United started with the talents of Martial, Sanchez and Lukaku; Rashford the man to drop to the bench. The signing of Sanchez was a fantastic one in terms of it being a coup and him being one of the league’s best players, and we reserve judgement on this but it’s a theory that it wasn’t the most planned of purchases. Better days will follow but just as Zlatan’s return from injury earlier in the campaign presented a conundrum in terms of fluency and consistency, you have to wonder how Mourinho intends his forward players to link up.