“It is as bad as a defeat,” admitted José Mourinho after Leicester City scored a last-minute equaliser at the King Power Stadium on Saturday night. Manchester United created the best chances and spent 20 minutes with a man advantage, yet left the East Midlands feeling despondent. Two disastrous results inside three days will do that. As for José: he threw his players under the bus. Twice.
Last Wednesday Mourinho’s team left Bristol having suffered defeat to City in the League Cup following Korey Smith’s 93rd minute strike. Despite making 10 changes to the side that narrowly beat West Bromwich Albion last weekend, Mourinho named 10 full internationals in his starting line-up at Ashton Gate. Three more came off the bench and the 54-year-old coach might have expected more than Bristol’s 2-1 victory in the west country.
"For some of us it was just one more day in the office. Probably a day that some of them don’t even want to come to the office."José Mourinho
With it went United’s hopes of retaining the trophy won last season and perhaps any silverware this season. After all, the Reds will not win the Premier or Champions League titles, and the FA Cup remains a crap-shoot knockout tournament.
The reaction was predictable though. Mourinho turned on his players, not for the first time this season, claiming that his squad lacked both the physical and mental intensity required.
“For some of us it was just one more day in the office,” Mourinho noted. “Probably a day that some of them don’t even want to come to the office and for the Bristol boys was a big, big day for them.”
“You advise, advise, advise, but in the end the players are in a different level of intensity of motivation than the opponent, and sometimes this can happen. The reality is that the ones on the pitch were the ones who were not in the last match, and probably the ones who are not going to be in the next match.”
The Portuguese may well be right about the lack of mental preparedness. United gave a good impression of assuming that victory over the in-form Championship team was all but assured. It smacked of an ugly arrogance born of global status. Though what United’s manager did not admit was his part in the disaster. The very essence of his job is to motivate his players, especially against lesser teams for whom the game represents a season’s highlight. It is a description that covers so many of United’s fixtures.
True to his word, Mourinho dropped eight players for the trip to Leicester, yet the result was equally catastrophic and the performance just as chaotic.
United created and wasted chances in the west country and the pattern followed on Saturday night. Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard all missed clear-cut opportunities against Leicester, while the Englishman was denied a decent shout for a penalty.
Indeed, United’s eventual downfall was very much of the club’s own making. Leicester substitute Daniel Amartey was sent off with around 20 minutes remaining, leaving the visitors 2-1 to the good and in the ascendancy. Yet, as the clock ticked towards the conclusion, United’s players sank ever deeper, with Ander Herrera brought on to shore up a vulnerable back-four. It gave Leicester hope and belief despite Claud Puel’s team playing a man short.
Chris Smalling’s injury proved to be the pivotal moment though, with the Englishman playing out the last few minutes with what looked to be an uncomfortable groin strain. Leicester pressed despite the man disadvantage, and it was Smalling who was caught out of position when Harry Maguire side-footed home the injury-time equaliser.
“Sometimes you take a point and you accept it as it was hard to get a positive result. That is not the case. That is not the case,” Mourinho fumed in the aftermath.
“For the last two minutes the players had to immediately adapt, to read the game, which they didn’t. So we had childish decisions in front of goal and bad decisions as it was not just about the goals we missed, or dribbling or hitting the post. It was not just about missing chances with an open goal, it was also about decisions. Easy decisions.
“Some players have childish decisions and time helps them to have maturity and to decide better, but some other players stay with childish decision until the end of their career.”
Mourinho rarely tolerates the latter, and is abrasive with the former. True, Herrera failed to block Mark Albrighton’s’s right-footed punt from deep on Leicester’s left, Smalling was unable to deal with the cross, and Ashley Young at left-back did nothing about covering the far post. Poor decisions all.
Up front, Lingard’s inexplicable second half miss with only the goalkeeper to beat echoed a time earlier in the winger’s career when inconsistent finishing threaten to stall the 24-year-old’s progress. In more recent times Lingard has been far more consistent, though, both in his performances and in front of goal.
Rashford, too, will question his decision-making after Leicester. In particular, the forward’s choice to delay and then play a through-ball towards Lukaku late in the game, when running the ball into the corner might have been the mature choice. The forward had earlier attempted to take on the Leicester ‘keeper Kasper Schmeichel when a square ball to Lukaku would surely have resulted in a decisive goal.
"I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament."Julius Caesar (III, i, 60 – 62)
Yet, Rashford is not the only United player unable or unwilling to show leadership on the pitch and take control of in-game situations. It is almost as if Mourinho’s players are too afraid to take a lead lest the manager take public issue or send somebody into exile with the reserves. Automatons bound to follow the manager’s every whim.
The worst decision, however, might have been taken by whomever allowed Smalling to remain on the pitch so late in the game, or at least in an area of such defensive vulnerability. That, presumably, was the same manager who once mocked Luke Shaw for limping out of a game against Swansea City with what proved to be a serious injury.
It is not as if Smalling’s state was a secret’ the player spent some time holding the inside of his left thigh, having broken down in the United area, leaving few in any doubt about the defender’s ability to effectively complete the game. As Albrighton’s deep, almost straight ball, reached the United box it floated over Smalling who was unable to get off the ground and was two yards the wrong side of Maguire. The clearance should have been routine.
Amid Mourinho’s rage at his players this week, the Portuguese has taken little responsibility for his part in what may prove to be two pivotal results. Nor has he after other defeats, including the meek performances against Manchester City and Chelsea this winter.
It is, after all, fundamental to the managerial role to both motivate his players and make key in-game changes, pick the right substitutions and manage the workload. In two games this week both Mourinho and his players have been found wanting. Only one party has faced the manager’s ire.
It is this hubris that may one-day be his undoing at United. We have seen this film before. Mourinho is never constant as the northern star. The ending was unpleasant at both Chelsea and Real Madrid.
Meanwhile, the Reds have tough fixtures against Burnley, Everton and Southampton to complete the festive programme. There are few guarantees that Mourinho’s team will respond. Nor the manager change his approach as we welcome 2018.