The phrase Manchester United “left to rue missed chances” has found its way into far too many match reports this season, and Thursday’s Europa League draw with Anderlecht was yet another installment in a long line of wasteful performances. The good news for José Mourinho is that his side has an opportunity to quickly make amends; the bad news is that it involves the visit to Old Trafford of table-topping Chelsea.
José Mourinho’s arrival at Manchester United last summer was met with excitement and skepticism in equal measure. Supporters raised questions not just about Mourinho’s style of play and its relevance, but the manager’s tendency to court controversy. Yet, Mourinho has demonstrated another quality – flexibility. It may be key as the season draws to a close.
If there was ever evidence that statistics can be deceiving then Manchester United’s unbeaten league run is the go-to example. The run now stretches to 19 games undefeated, but with little demonstrable progress to show for it. The Reds make the trip to Sunderland desperate to ensure that David Moyes is not the man to break the lossless streak.
Has Manchester United manager José Mourinho regressed into his bad cop routine just a little too early? The pattern is familiar, the one in which Dirty Harry challenges his punk players to try their luck. Just one more time. It begins with key players being ostracised in an increasingly public fashion, as if to distract from on-the-pitch failings, and ends with Mourinho leaving his post ignominiously, player power having won. Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Chelsea again. Bad cop gone bad. The red flags are many at Old Trafford as well. In the course of a week Mourinho launched into an astonishing and public attack on his creative players, before throwing youthful defender Luke Shaw under a lengthy bus. Yet, for all the concerns raised by Mourinho the man manager this week it is another pattern that is troubling the Portuguese coach most – the inability of his team to win games at Old Trafford. It will probably cost the club a place in next season’s Champions League.
As fresh problems presented themselves, a familiar result was the almost inevitable outcome. With little more than a handful of choices available, José Mourinho lined up his few available players against West Bromwich Albion and was rewarded with yet another home draw. Although Manchester United is in the midst of an unbeaten league run that stretches almost six months, Mourinho’s side remains fifth, seemingly as far away from the Champions League as ever. The past 20 league games without loss have included nine ending in a tie.
Relief, at last, from the many long nights of international boredom. The real stuff happens this weekend, with José Mourinho’s Manchester United in Premier League action against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. Such is the malaise surrounding FIFA’s lengthy two-year World Cup qualification process that the nation awaits the Premier League’s return, save for Arsenal supporters, for whom a meaningless friendly between Andora and Vanuatu is merciful respite from the soul crushing misery of their reality.
As weeks go, Manchester United’s was certainly mixed. FA Cup defeat to Chelsea on Monday came amid the controversy of Ander Herrera’s dismissal and Antonio Conte’s accusation of Red-flavoured anti-football. The former was certainly unfortunate, the latter misleading. Then, on Thursday, José Mourinho’s side eased into the Europa League quarter-final in unspectacular fashion, albeit in the process of losing world-record signing Paul Pogba to injury. Mourinho believes a heavy schedule is catching up on the club. It could get worse before it gets better.
There were few who failed to notice José Mourinho’s notably subdued demeanour as his players celebrated their first trophy of the season. The Manchester United manager stood alone on the Wembley turf, displaying almost no emotion. Perhaps his team’s performance in last Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Southampton was not to his liking; maybe he really is as miserable as some claim, or perhaps he had the look of a man who knows his job is only just beginning.
When Watford’s favourite son, the late Graham Taylor, brought his team to Old Trafford for a League Cup Third Round tie in 1978 the Hornets left the Rainy City with a 2-1 victory. The goals, both from Luther Blissett, handed Watford the club’s only win on the red side of Manchester. Back in September, the contemporary version also beat United, this time at Vicarage Road. The calamitous 3-1 defeat for the Reds concluded a series of three reverses on the bounce for José Mourinho’s outfit. Neither United nor the Portuguese manager can accept a similar outcome as Watford visits Old Trafford on Saturday.
What is it with the Premier League this season. It is as if, Chelsea aside, nobody really wants to confirm a place in next season’s Champions League, let alone challenge for the title. Manchester United’s victory over last season’s champions Leicester City on Sunday means that there are now just five points between Tottenham Hotspur in second and the Reds in sixth. The only consistency is, apparently, inconsistency.