By Matthew Galea
Watching Manchester United is proving a frustrating experience this season.
Moreso than even the greatest pessimists would have predicted.
In the current moment, even when United play well, they rarely come away with three points but when they play badly, they are terrible to watch.
Two weeks ago, Fenerbache travelled to Old Trafford and were handed a 4-1 spanking by United. On Thursday night, they made United look even below Europa League status.
Jose Mourinho knew he was taking on a big job when he was handed the reins at Manchester United. The Portuguese manager, who has enjoyed a hugely successful career, probably is not surprised by much in football, but perhaps the size of the job ahead is only finally daunting on him.
Here are our five lessons from the game.
At half-time, Manchester United were 1-0 down, had failed to put a shot on target despite creating some half-decent chances and looked slow and indecisive in the final third.
Yet for some reason, the overwhelming suggestion was that United had played well.
If the first 45 minutes of United’s 2-1 loss to Fenerbache – which puts the club in real danger of suffering the embarrassment of failing to make it out of a group which also includes Dutch side Feyenoord and Ukranian outfit FC Zorya – can be considered a good performance, then that well and truly shows how far the standards have fallen from those outside the club.
One can only hope that such standards do not apply within the club.
Granted, United were only trailing because of a moment of truly exceptional quality from Fenerbache and might be considered unlucky to be on the end of a spectacular Moussa Sow overhead kick from nothing, but at the same time this is European football and it is naïve to think that a club as cultured and historic as Fenerbache – a regular in European club competition – are not capable of such feats, especially at home.
To simply cast off United’s failure to achieve parity or better by half-time because Sow’s goal could perhaps be considered a fluke does little to acknowledge that barring one good chance spurned by Wayne Rooney’s terrible first touch, United created nothing of their own in the opening 45 minutes.
MOURINHO SELECTION QUESTIONS
“Maybe he’s not a striker any more. Maybe he is not a No 9 anymore but he will never, with me, be a No.6. He will never be 50 metres from the goal. For me he will be a No 9 or a No 10 or a nine-and-a-half, but with me he will never be a No 6 or even a No 8.”
That is how Mourinho described Rooney in his first Manchester United press conference, yet after a poor first half as a striker, Mourinho deployed the captain as a deep-lying midfielder with Ander Herrera, behind the more advanced Juan Mata, who came on at half-time with United chasing the game.
The half-time sacrificial lamb for that substitution? Morgan Schneiderlin. An actual midfielder.
Bizzare, to say the least.
The selection of Rooney as the number nine further highlighted what Mourinho wants from that particular position. Someone who can hold the ball up, link with midfield and get into goalscoring positions. The introduction of Zlatan Ibrahimovic after Paul Pogba was forced off with injury further emphasised that, as Mourinho ignored the option of simply introducing another midfielder, or introducing Henrikh Mkhitaryan and moving either Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford into a central role with Rooney dropping into the number 10 role.
The tactic has proven somewhat effective or, at the very least, shown promise. For the most part, United have created chances and Ibrahimovic has excelled in the hold-up and link-up aspect of his game if not the finishing. Rooney, too, was a good outlet for the midfield, but when he did manage to get on the end of a good opportunity, his first touch let him down.
Ultimately, though, if the personnel fit for that job are not scoring goals, then maybe a subtle change in system is required.
Conceding an early goal once in a while happens, but twice in a month is a concern. As Mourinho pointed out after the game, it speaks for a lack of concentration.
United managed to hold Fenerbache out for a whole 60 seconds more than they managed against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, but conceding after 90 seconds against Fenerbache – no matter how spectacular the goal – is a bad indictment on Mourinho’s team.
A new-look defence, with injuries forcing Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo to start in central defence and Matteo Darmian playing at right-back, probably does not help United’s cohesion, but still, the lack of pressure on the ball into the box does no one any favours.
The goal did a lot more damage than just put United behind, it allowed Fenerbache to play a negative game and frustrate United with constant diving and time-wasting tactics.
United simply have to get a lot better at starting games on a positive note.
WONDER GOAL NOT ENOUGH FOR ROONEY
Rooney was almost United’s saviour, but it still was not enough to merit any more first-team action than what he is currently receiving.
As a striker in the first half, Rooney did a decent job with his back to goal, but he fluffed his only chance to score and when he was able to turn and face the goal he failed to find Rashford or Martial’s runs behind the defence, or force the keeper into action.
In the second half as a midfielder, he was equally ineffective. He had one chance to play Rashford into the box and sent him hopelessly wide of the goal, with only the teenagers guile, skill and pace allowing him to craft another half-chance for Ibrahimovic, but was otherwise uninvolved until he scored his classy goal as the game drew to a close. A header from a late corner almost made its way into the goal, but it was far too little, too late.
UNITED SPIRIT EXTINGUISHED
Since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, we have seen two managers come in and try and impart their vision on the club and the squad.
Players who served the club so well under Ferguson were shown the door – rightly or wrongly – while tactics were changed, new players were bought in of varying quality and new coaches and methods of training were implemented.
David Moyes lasted seven months and Louis van Gaal lasted two seasons. Neither were given the opportunity to finish what they started, arguably deservedly so given the results they achieved.
Now, United have opted for the big name and reputation of Mourinho, but what is plainly clear is that this United squad and potentially the whole unit surrounding the first-team is little more than a bastardised version of three managers’ hopes and dreams.
It is little wonder then that when we watch United now, we watch a team that for the most part seems so disconnected to the club and devoid of any sense of the fighting spirit that characterised Sir Alex’s squads.
This is not Mourinho’s fault. Really, it is not Moyes’ or Van Gaal’s fault, either. It is a by-product of different philosophies, styles and underachievement and it effectively means that the “United spirit” as we knew it for so long, has been extinguished.
The cold, hard reality is that this will take time and patience to rebuild.
United have tied themselves to Mourinho and he is clearly making in-roads to deciding who will play a part in his long-term vision, but one has to recognise the enormity of that task with what is essentially a patch-work squad that, since Moyes’ departure, has favoured a transfer policy of star quality first and functionality second.
The irony, of course, is that the major criticism of Ferguson in his final years was that he underinvested in midfield and passed on or did not do enough to bring big-name players to United – even while United continued to win a Premier League title every other season.
Ferguson opted for functionality and dedicated much more time to understanding a transfer target’s character and ambition than he did the commercial opportunities they presented and – albeit from my armchair – that is particularly what I would advise Mourinho and Ed Woodward to focus on in future transfer windows, because if United continues to rely on its tradition and stature within the game to make “impact” signings, then United’s situation will get worse and worse in the years to come.