What they deserve
Full credit to Brighton who thoroughly deserved their comfortable – and that’s what it was – victory. The Seagulls capitalised on a particularly sloppy period of United in the first half, putting the result in their hands and out of the reach of a pedestrian Manchester United side completely lacking in urgency.
For United, there were deeply concerning echoes of defeats to Norwich City and Stoke City in December 2015, when it appeared the players downed tools for Louis van Gaal. Maybe it’s a modern football problem but these sorts of displays have become more common than performances which genuinely reflect the traditional reputation of the club. We have seen it of a title winning squad under David Moyes; a transitional squad under Louis van Gaal, and today, a team completely changed except for two players from the last time United won a league.
The blame will go on the manager and it will be hyperbolic. Defeat was embarrassing enough. The manner of the defeat was much worse and even if the manager takes most of the blame, the finger should be squarely pointed at the players.
A clash of styles
It is not a new suggestion to suggest Manchester United and Jose Mourinho have a clash of style. That clash isn’t about winning.
Despite what Mourinho-bashers are intent on having you believe, Jose Mourinho does set out his teams to win every game (well, almost every game, the back end of the 2016/17 season still stings) and that is a Manchester United ethos too.
The problem stems from Mourinho’s clear preference to win a game 1-0 rather than 3-1. For the ex-Porto and Chelsea manager, such a victory is one he can regard as a managerial masterclass, where he has earned an edge by getting his team to both score and prevent concession.
The conflict doesn’t come in Manchester United’s supporters unwillingness to accept a 1-0 win; it comes from their player’s inability to play that way and the manager’s implicit inability to acknowledge that.
See it in the casual approach in the first half; there is neither the quality or the discipline in almost any of these players to win almost any game 1-0, let alone this kind of game. They lack the clinical edge to dominate a game, fashion one chance and take it.
This much has been evident since February, when the manager picked a side he felt was just enough to get past Sevilla. Old Trafford has a mind of its own and can touch into the support to create a tangible nervous atmosphere; a surreal experience where you begin to realise that United will need two or three goals instead of just one. It is an affliction which even the greatest United teams under Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby suffered.
It therefore becomes more a matter of a spiritual contrast between club and manager. The question is fast becoming whether or not a different manager would get the most out of this squad on balance and the balance of the evidence suggests that while a new manager would probably get a better attacking balance, he wouldn’t get better defensive organisation.
However, when United are still capable of the horror show they put on today under the most renowned tactical disciplinarian there is, you must wonder what the point of it all is.
New season, same old problems
United’s right hand side is less a problem, more a critical handicap. Antonio Valencia is not perfect and Diogo Dalot is completely untried but their inclusion in this United team can not come quickly enough. Ashley Young and Eric Bailly combined horrifically for Brighton’s clever first, while Juan Mata’s ineffectual display illustrates why Jose Mourinho was so keen to bring in a right winger. The defence was erratic, missing a leader. Mourinho has trusted Lindelof and Bailly; he has been given little choice, but, as they were his signings, the first half in particular was not a positive advertisement for Mourinho’s judgement.
Then there’s the attitude. You have to wonder if City’s six goal haul planted doubt in the mind of the United players. Are we good enough to match that side? You can’t help but wonder what Sir Alex Ferguson would have told his players; it isn’t so much about matching City stride for stride, but it is about being better over the other 36 games. That was how he masterminded the turnaround against Mourinho’s moneybags Chelsea.
The result will be presented in contrast to City’s; if that is unfair, that is simply the level of expectation at Manchester United. This writer happens to think it is a ridiculous comparison considering City’s financial example. But there is a salient, prevailing point — Manchester United can, and should, be doing better with what they do have.
But you look at United’s response to going a goal behind at Brighton and you can’t help but think it doesn’t mean enough. Last season they were so abysmal at this ground that you thought at least their response couldn’t be as bad as that; and yet it was worse, with their goal through Romelu Lukaku being the result of fortune rather than genuine craft.
As soon as Brighton scored their second you had a feeling it would take until the interval for United to have any hope of turning it around, because they don’t seem to have the on-pitch inspiration, a presence who will get the team buzzing, and that is a damning indictment of a team boasting the likes of Pogba, Lukaku, Martial and a £50m midfielder in Fred.
It’s also becoming a damning indictment of the manager who selects them. Nemanja Matic was missing but him aside, the spine of the Manchester United side were all Jose Mourinho signings. Worrying, then, that their surrender was so… and there’s no other word for it… spineless.
Some will attribute the worrying attitude of the United players to the manager. Those with a predisposed position against Jose Mourinho certainly will. That may be fair. Either way, it is unforgivable for players representing Manchester United to play as half-hearted as they did in the first half.
The argument between the dwindling number in support of the manager and the section of support who seem to back Anthony Martial will probably have found strength on both sides this evening.
The problem for Manchester United fans is that this general issue at the clubs predates the current manager; if Martial outstays Mourinho at Old Trafford, the problems will return the minute Martial has to spend a minute on the bench, and then who do the supporters back?
At some point, you have to support the manager. United can’t afford to keep making changes at the top. It was obvious before that Mourinho was right in his identified choices. How many times will that come back to haunt United this season? Who will ultimately pay the price? Probably the manager. It seems United will be stuck in the same cycle ad infinitum.
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