Well, if there was a way Manchester United were going to give Manchester City the league this season, it was bound to be this way, wasn’t it? A week after showing the falsest of promises with that recovery win against City, they conspired to hand the title to their neighbours by losing to the worst team in the league.
The first half was played with all the intensity you might expect between two teams whose fates are effectively sealed; the noisiest moments moments coming when Ander Herrera was wrongly denied a penalty and the surprising, but foreboding, moments where West Brom threatened to score a goal themselves.
No game of football, particularly at Old Trafford for Manchester United, should ever be dismissed as meaningless. There is always something to learn, no matter how little it seems to be. For United, last week’s win meant this time around they had an opportunity to build some momentum going into next season. For the visitors, Darren Moore may be fighting a battle that is doomed to fail but he is playing a season within a season. A win from this game may do their survival chances no realistic help but it would theoretically do his chances of getting the job on a permanent basis all the good in the world.
So, where to place the blame for this drab performance? Was Mourinho at fault? Possibly. But one can see the wisdom and virtue in playing the same shape which impressed in the second half last week, and appeared to get the best out of some of the players. Should United need to play a three man midfield at home for Pogba to flourish? No, and there have been plenty of times this season where he has played well against so-called lesser opponents in a two alongside Matic. Mourinho reacted by firstly changing the shape, secondly withdrawing the dreadful Pogba and then throwing everything at it with the introduction of Rashford.
United lack any real attacking cohesion and it could be said it has been that way since the arrival of Alexis Sanchez disrupted the potentially most attractive and effective combination Mourinho had put together in his time at the club.
In 2005, after Chelsea had already won the title, West Brom earned a 1-1 draw from Old Trafford. The following year, after United had watched Chelsea win the title against them, an opponent of similar stature, Middlesbrough, got a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. Given that perspective it doesn’t necessarily have a bearing on next season, or United’s ability to challenge next year; at least that would be true if the defeat didn’t bear all the hallmarks of all of United’s shortcomings in the post-Ferguson half-decade.
West Brom more than anyone summarise United’s malaise in that period, having achieved three wins and a draw here since that retirement.
Same old story
So what are those shortcomings? Well, we saw it for 20 minutes last week, we’ve seen it many times over the season and it was on painful show again today – and, really, if it was going to take Manchester United shooting themselves in the foot to give Manchester City the title in a one-horse race, it was fitting that it was provided in such a manner.
United’s defenders are clearly good enough to have the club finish in the top two, or three. Considering how much of a crisis point that has been in the last five years, Mourinho should be lauded for that if anything else. It is an improvement beyond all expectations; and yet this United defence is as capable of playing as poorly as it did for that spell at the Etihad, against any opponent in the division.
It was a defensive error that saw them lose at Newcastle and the goal conceded today would not have been conceded by any of Jose Mourinho’s prior teams. The lack of leadership and organisation was horrific. Victor Lindelof earns a reprieve for next season only because of a lack of time served – and the hope that he is not damaged by reputation – but the other three of this United defence should not be considered first choice next season. It is already a black mark against the manager that they are considered the first names in the defence right now.
The secondary issue in this writer’s opinion – one which is most likely considered by readers to be the primary one – was how United’s lack of reaction, or, most pertinently, their lack of pro-activity, undermined any chance of a comeback or a win in this game.
Again, this is an alarming character trait in the side which has been present since those early insipid games under David Moyes. Ironically, those home defeats were ushered in by a reverse against today’s visitors, a game which followed a similar pattern – where the last 30 minutes saw supporters subjected to a team who looked more likely to concede than get back into the game.
The problem never really improved under Louis van Gaal. United’s comebacks under Mourinho suggest it has improved, and yet, is still present.
A part of this has to be down to the manager. He was hoodwinked by last week’s game. He felt that a three man midfield would help. He has been hoodwinked by this defence; Valencia gets a pass, but a manager as experienced as he must only be playing Smalling and Young at this point to make a point. He must know they are not United standard, he must know that having a defence as poor as this fundamentally undermines any hopes of winning a title.
Regardless of this – but especially if somehow, these players survive to play a consistent part next year – Mourinho has to be more proactive. It is clear that this squad of players is not good enough to adhere to the modus operandi of their manager, which is do to just enough to win. It will not take a huge shift in Mourinho’s philosophy but his experience of being the manager at Manchester United – and, more particularly, at Old Trafford – would surely have made him see that
Too many players in this squad are too passive to play for a club who are incompatible with that attitude. Worryingly, that number seems to include Paul Pogba; undoubtedly the most talented player at the club, it is a matter of grave concern that he can play as he did last week and canter through a game like he did today. Pogba would do worse than take the next three or four months observing tapes of Cristiano Ronaldo’s attitude and application.
Pogba is not alone of course and you have to look at the general attitude of some of these players and wonder if they have the requisite application to improve. Mourinho talked about ‘smelling’ this attitude. He talked about them being ‘the masters of complication’.
He is right. But it is his, ultimately, job to build a squad that does not have that mentality. He can rightly claim to have progressed the club but two years in, he does have the responsibility of eradicating that mentality.
Winning the league is a side-product, a counter-effect of the club’s ambition. The level of expectancy, the demands of a Manchester United player should be pointed out to them on a weekly basis by the effort levels of their opponents.
Look at West Brom, the worst team in the league by a distance this season, who demonstrated what can happen when you show better commitment and energy levels. Where was that all season for them? That’s a question for their supporters to ask their players, but it was not a surprise for United fans, nor should it be a surprise for United players, and therefore, matching those energy levels and that level of commitment should be the bare minimum United supporters expect from their own players.
Defeat can then be accepted, it can be more palatable, because freak results happen sometimes in football. Those post-Ferguson results against this very opponent reveal something concerning about the general attitude of most of these players – the players who have been there throughout and the players who have adopted that general attitude that coasting is acceptable.
Mourinho is culpable too, of course he is. But for those players, this summer should be terminal as far as their careers at Manchester United are concerned.
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