Mourinho gambles on momentum lost for faltering Reds
Swansea City away in the everybody’s least favourite tournament, on a cold, probably wet, Tuesday night in the pretty shitty city is nobody’s description of a must win game. Must win it is though after José Mourinho’s plans threatened to turn south over the past week. Manchester United’s dispiriting draw at Anfield, narrow win at Benfica, and gutless defeat to Huddersfield Town, have tongues wagging at Old Trafford. Mourinho will ring the changes for the League Cup tie at Swansea, but anything other than a comfortable victory will create added pressure ahead of Tottenham Hotspur’s visit to Old Trafford at the weekend.
Mourinho’s side is the defending champion in this tournament, although the Portuguese coach suggested United would be better off without the newly-rebranded Carabao Cup. “Could English football survive or even be better without this competition?” he pondered. “Maybe. Maybe we would be fresher for European competitions.”
Yet, the League Cup proved a significant boost last season and a platform from which to build towards an end-of-season Europa League victory, together with the momentum and confidence that comes with silverware. That thrust carried over into an unbeaten start to the new campaign, with goals flowing against mostly limited opposition.
"Swansea away in the everybody’s least favourite tournament on a cold, probably wet, Tuesday night nobody’s description of a must win game, but must win it is."
United’s run of positive performances ended at Anfield last weekend where Mourinho sent his team out to secure a goalless draw against a limited opponent in an approach that has been described as “cowardly” in some quarters.
Mourinho’s decision to park-the-bus has been the subject of much debate over the past week, but also one that has proven to be a catastrophic mistake. After all, momentum is very hard-won, but easily lost. This Mourinho’s side found out in Portugal, where the Reds won narrowly against Benfica. Defeat at Huddersfield had an air, if not of inevitability, then at least of trajectory about it.
Mourinho was having none of it, throwing his players under the bus after defeat in West Yorkshire. Ander Herrera, who offered an honest assessment of Huddersfield’s greater “passion,” was singled out by the United manager – a classic case of shooting the messenger.
“I don’t even remember a friendly match where our attitude was so poor,” Mourinho said after United’s 2-1 defeat . “When I lose matches, I like to lose because the opponent was better and had more quality. But when you lose because of attitude, that is really bad.
“I heard Ander Herrera in his TV interview saying the attitude and desire was poor. When a player says that, or a player feels that, I think they should all go to the press conference and explain why — because I cannot explain that.”
The temptation might be to roll out the big guns on Tuesday, secure a healthy win at free-falling Swansea, and regain the feel-good factor before Tottenham’s visit. Mourinho is unlikely to bow to that pressure, with Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and David De Gea all due a rest. In turn, Michael Carrick, Marcos Rojo, and youngster Scott McTominay could all come into the squad. Key players will remain fresh for the weekend, but defeat in Wales will only add to a sense that United’s positive start to the campaign has ground to a halt.
Yet, United’s early season victories did come with a warning: could Mourinho’s side do it against top opposition? Given Liverpool’s hammering at the hands of Spurs on Sunday, it is clear that the Reds are yet to face a decent side this season. All the more worrying that the team has hit a sticky patch before October is out.
More fundamentally, Mourinho’s timidity at Anfield and the brutal defeat in Yorkshire exposed the Reds’ weaknesses. It is still a team in whom Mourinho does not fully trust, where confidence is built on shaky ground, and the expensively assembled stars hold too many limitations.
“When you look at United, they don’t play with the same fluidity as Spurs or Manchester City,” Tom Ince, son of former Red Paul noted at the weekend. “They build up slowly and we felt that, if we could win the ball back and try to exploit the space in behind – the space the full-backs leave because they go so high – we could have an advantage.”
It proved to be an astute assessment by up-and-coming Huddersfield manager David Wagner.
Swansea’s loss to managerless Leicester City at the weekend was the Swans’ fifth Premier League defeat of the campaign. The Welsh side has now picked up just four points from the team’s last six league games, leaving Swansea outside the relegation zone on goal difference alone.
Manager Paul Clement is not yet under the threat of the sack, although the former Real Madrid and Bayern Munich assistant manager is coming up to a year in post. Clement led Swansea to an unlikely escape from relegation last season, with his team securing 26 points from the final 18 games.
Yet, the Swans have not been able to build on the positive end to last season. Indeed, a difficult summer in the transfer market left many assuming that the club was primed for a relegation battle. Key midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson was sold to Everton for more than £40 million, while striker Fernando Llorente opted to join Spurs as cover for Harry Kane, and midfielder Jack Cork left for Burnley. In came Sam Clucas from Hull City, Wilfried Bony returning from Manchester City, Roque Mesa from Las Palmas, and the youngster Renato Sanches on loan. Talented players all, but no guarantee of an improvement on stars departed.
The aforementioned Rojo, Carrick, and McTominay could feature in south Wales, although only the latter is definitely fit enough to start. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero and defenders Luke Shaw, Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind are also in contention. Youngster Axel Tuanzebe could play at right-back, while the hapless Viktor Linelof may be given the opportunity to make up for his catastrophic mistake at the weekend.
Phil Jones will definitely miss the game after being injured in United’s weekend defeat, while long-term absentees Marouane Fellaini, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all miss out.
Elsewhere, Mourinho could pick both Antony Martial and Marcus Rashford to start together in attack for only the second time this season. It would be an exciting choice in a game that few really want.
Assistants: Simon Bennett, Eddie Smart
Fourth official: Roger East