The ceaseless inquest to any sub-par Manchester United performance is tiring.
Part of it is just the nature of social media and modern day journalism. The only good take is a definitive one and everyone is looking for the ultimate answer or to draw the final conclusion.
It works both ways, too. When United beat West Ham United 4-0 on the opening day of the Premier League season, it was the best team in the league. Similarly, when Manchester City drew 1-1 with Everton in its second game of the league, questions were asked of Pep Guardiola and his signings.
How times change. A 0-0 draw away at Anfield and a scrappy 1-0 win in Lisbon over Benfica in the Champions League for United as City plundered nine goals in two games against Stoke City and Napoli respectively and the dialogue is completely different.
United manager Jose Mourinho is no longer the genius that oversaw a ripping start to the season in which the club scored 32 goals in 10 games between the league, Champions League and League Cup up until the last international break.
Now, he is the ultimate pragmatist, succumbing to teams far inferior to his own in the hope of scraping a point away from home. You’d almost forget that United is yet to lose a competitive game since the start of the Premier League!
Sure, the last two games have not been great, but some perspective, please.
The international break came at a terrible time for the team and robbed it of momentum and some in-form players. Marouane Fellaini joined an already lengthy injury list, alongside fellow first-teamers Eric Bailly and Paul Pogba.
The game at Anfield was tough, as they always are. Jurgen Klopp and his side are desperate and needed a big performance to try and salvage a Premier League season that is already slipping from them. They threw the kitchen sink at United and found no way through. Had Romelu Lukaku finished his only chance of the game, Liverpool may have been left empty-handed.
Was Mourinho negative in his approach? Yes. Did we leave with a point? Yes. Move on, it’s not going to break a season. Regardless of Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous quote that he, “never played for anything other than a win”, we all know that there were times when even the untouchable Fergie was content with a scrappy draw away from home.
Did the approach at Anfield make a difference against Benfica? Surely not. That game was the polar opposite of Anfield. United had all the ball, it just failed to use it effectively in the final third. Despite that, Mourinho’s men still won and maintained their perfect start to the Champions League campaign.
It’s hardly a crisis, it’s just the reality of a football season.
Manchester United was never going to put four goals past every opponent it played, just like Manchester City is not going to score seven goals against Stoke City every time they play.
From a practical point of view, the only real dilemma for Mourinho on the back of the two games since the international break is working out which players are performing to the expected standard, who is not and who is available to replace them.
From a tactical perspective, there did not seem to be a whole lot of difference between the two set-ups in terms of basic formation. Mourinho used his preferred 4-2-3-1 formations, with the only major differences the selection of Ashley Young against Liverpool – a more conservative option – and Juan Mata against Benfica in the right-wing spots.
The difference was one opponent, Liverpool, was a lot better than the other, Benfica.
The former’s desperation for a win was evident in the manic nature of its forward press and the 26 crosses it put into the box, which pushed an already conservative team backwards. When United picked up possession, it just was not able to make anything happen with it.
If anything, the Benfica performance was the more concerning of the two, simply down to the fact that United had 64 per cent of the ball and only managed to score when the opponent’s 18-year-old goalkeeper Mile Svilar unknowingly carried the ball over his own goal-line from an innocuous Marcus Rashford free-kick.
The lack of clear goalscoring chances created on the night could perhaps be attributed to the lack of balance between the front four and a trigger-happy linesman.
Rashford offered genuine width and pace down the left wing and was United’s most constant source of penetrating runs, while on the right Mata worked a lot more closely with the disappointing Henrikh Mkhitaryan in central areas, leaving Antonio Valencia’s steaming runs down the right as United’s main outlet down the right wing.
The Ecuadorian was uncharacteristically poor from good positions, while Mata and Mkhitaryan tried to poke holes in an organised Benfica defence with little luck.
These questions are key and Mourinho would do well to find answers to them before the weekend’s clash away to Huddersfield, where United should once again dominate the game. Whether or not Mourinho has the personnel to make the required changes remains to be seen given the current state of the injury list, which may now also include Rashford.
Cause for concern? Maybe, but this is no time for an inquest.