When it was clear United were not going to finish in the top four last season, their league form disintegrated.
Whenever it seemed as if their top two status was under threat this time around, United have done just enough to hold on to it. They should still finish second but for the first time in Premier League history United can claim the dubious honour to have lost at all three promoted clubs, while also claiming a 1-0 home defeat to the team who will finish bottom.
Spurs recently drew here; Liverpool’s own patchy form in the league is enough to put this defeat into perspective and context. It’s a tough league, where the difference between first and second is represented by an expenditure that has resulted in a relentless and unmatchable consistency.
Take Manchester City out of the equation and compare United to their own Premier League history and things are not as bad as they are sometimes perceived to be. However. Above we have listed 12 points United should not have dropped. It might not have been enough to win the title but it would have been enough for a reasonable challenge.
Debates about style and lack of it can continue to be had, but there is no doubting that the teams United have put out in these games should have been enough to achieve maximum points from those games. They didn’t, and the price the squad will have to pay is not only the memory of not challenging City, but being perceived as a team who are third or fourth best in a league where they will likely finish second.
Based on the commitment levels on show today and at home to West Brom, that’s the dig to their pride that these players deserve, though, again, on this evidence you would have to wonder whether they care either way.
You learn something new every day
The build to this game featured a humorous/baffling remark from Jose Mourinho about not giving Eric Bailly game time in order to give better chances to players who stand a chance of going to the World Cup.
Okay, so that was in reference to the centre halves so on that score you can forgive the selection of Matteo Darmian, but there just seems to be little point in continuing with the Italian. Is this place in the team not better served given to a young player? Play Young on the right and put Shaw on the left?
Here is a remarkable truth; United, despite once again fielding a back four who are unfamiliar with each other, are their individual errors that have led to goals away from being more miserly than Chelsea in 2005/6.
Today Mourinho played four players who are more prone to errors (you could flip a coin for either of the centre halves and Phil Jones) than any other in their position at the club. If it made it through the first half unscathed then the uncertainty they breed through the side did nothing to help the players in front of them play a settled and composed game, making a pretty meaningless game more difficult and awkward than it should have been.
Darmian was culpable twice for the opening goal and only Smalling wasn’t left red-faced as Brighton repeatedly sought to make fools of the United defenders. Marouane Fellaini had compared himself to £50m players; he cost around half that and still put in a performance that again suggests United overpaid to the tune of £20m.
Mourinho threw everything at Brighton in terms of personnel but his team offered little; this was not to be another comeback. United’s players got precisely what they deserved from this game. And Brighton, it should be said, got what they deserved too – they were the more enterprising team and were full value for their win.
If Mourinho is going to be accused of pragmatism from now until the end of the season then he can hardly be blamed. Too often did he try playing a 4-2-3-1, trying to shoehorn another player in attack so that nobody from the attack missed out after Sanchez’s arrival.
The issue was that the team was not able to control games and had no fluency or rhythm. Furthermore, it was suggested that system was not enough to get the best out of Paul Pogba.
And so Mourinho has gone with a 4-3-3, he has stayed with it in the likelihood this is the system that will be played on Cup Final day. There is a place in midfield, a place in attack (maybe) and maybe a place in central defence up for grabs.
On the evidence of the first half, Paul Pogba did little to show why he is worthy of having a system built around getting the best out of him. He was just as bad in the second. All three of the front players failed their auditions to try and get themselves in front of Jesse Lingard, whose first-team stock increases with each ineffectual performance or high-profile indecisive moment of his team-mares.
But it is not just a Wembley place some of these players are fighting for and it is games like this where a title challenge may be lost next season. On the evidence of tonight you have to wonder who will still be at Old Trafford to take up that challenge. With two games in a short space of time next week you would have to say it’s not quite the death knell for some of them, it will surely be the performance that rubber-stamped a few departures.
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