Manchester United slipped out of the Champions League at the hands of Sevilla on Tuesday evening, with Jose Mourinho’s side coming under significant fire for the impotence of their displays over the course of the two legs.
Vincenzo Montella’s charges weren’t expected to come away with anything from the round of sixteen tie, especially after they missed numerous chances to take a lead to Old Trafford at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
However, United never really attacked the match, they seemed stuck in a difficult position of waiting for something to happen and actually needing to force the issue. It was apparent that as soon as the Spanish side scored a crucial away goal, it was only then the hosts started to really venture forward.
Mourinho has taken the brunt of the criticism in the hours since the defeat, yet he was keen to temper expectations of the fans by illustrating how Manchester United don’t have a right to success in the Champions League.
“I’ve sat in this chair twice before,” he explained in his post-match press conference.
“With Porto, Manchester United out and with Real Madrid, Manchester United out. So I don’t think this feeling is anything new for the club.”
Supporters have reacted furiously to these comments, suggesting the former Chelsea coach is merely pushing his own previous achievements forward at a time of great disappointment at Old Trafford.
This, I don’t think, was the case at all. Mourinho was merely to trying to get across the point that Manchester United don’t win the competition every single season, so such an exit shouldn’t be treated as a near catastrophe.
There isn’t anything wrong with being eliminated in the Champions League, even to a lesser opponent, it’s an incredibly difficult competition and the away goals rule often keeps teams alive in ties when they could have been eliminated much earlier, Juventus proved this at Wembley against Tottenham Hotspur.
The issue with Manchester United’s exit on Tuesday was the performance, the Europa League holders didn’t try and force the issue. They needed to be careful of conceding an away goal, but that came at the expense of trying to win the match.
Mourinho has an incredible array of attacking talent at his disposal at this point; Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata. The problem is that at the present moment, Mourinho doesn’t have enough of a belief in his defence to truly formulate a plan to let his attackers play freely.
People have this misconception that Jose Mourinho is a solely defensive coach and it’s always been this way. This is quite simply incorrect, when he arrived in the Premier League his Chelsea team were defensively solid and reliable, but also had incredible threats in attack. People quite easily forget just how much the Portuguese coach managed to get out of Damien Duff, Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben amongst others.
The key to that Chelsea midfield was that Mourinho could trust it, Claude Makelele was incredibly reliable, Michael Essien was the same and Frank Lampard was fantastically consistent. Defensively he had players who were reliable at Stamford Bridge and this ensured the team were finely balanced.
Manchester United currently lack this balance, Nemanja Matic has enjoyed a fantastic debut season in Manchester, he’s been one of Mourinho’s best signings. Yet there is still a lack of regular partner next to him who can be relied upon. Scott McTominay’s emergence has been pleasing and he will form part of Mourinho’s squad for the next couple of seasons, however central midfield still remains a position that needs to be addressed.
In defence you still have a mix of Sir Alex Ferguson players and Jose Mourinho players. This isn’t a great balance and it shows often that United have two ageing former wingers playing as full-backs.
As diligent as Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young are, they were both excellent in the victory over Liverpool, the full-back position is so crucial in modern football that you need younger, more energetic players in those roles. You can see how much trouble the Reds were given by Patrick van Aanholt and Aaron Wan-Bissaka in the 3-2 victory over Crystal Palace.
The club will always come under fire for needing to spend more money, and that’s fair in parts, however the task Mourinho was entrusted with when he arrived was far more gargantuan than anyone could have realised.
The transfers under the Louis van Gaal era were largely unsuccessful and it has left the squad unbalanced, furthermore those players don’t retain a high market value so it’s difficult for Manchester United to come out smelling of roses from a transfer window.
Years ago a coach would be given three summer transfer windows before he has his complete squad and the former Internazionale boss in on track for that. However, in 2018 there is a lack of patience across the board which makes people lose track of what work actually needs to be done at a football club.
Mourinho does himself no favours with the style of football he plays in big matches, Tuesday was a prime example. Mourinho isn’t setting his team out to play badly or in an overly cautious manner, he just doesn’t trust all parts of his team to execute the perfect game-plan he perfected during his spells at other clubs.
The 2018 summer transfer window will see the Reds address these defensive areas, they simply have to, and if Mourinho doesn’t then have the confidence in his team then you’d be concerned.
Whilst the elimination at the hands of a poor Sevilla team is difficult for supporters to take, it isn’t an irreparable disaster. The team has improved in the Premier League and seem comfortable in second place, it’s been years since you could even use the words Manchester United and second place in the same sentence.
It’s part of a process and there have been promising moments under the Portuguese coach, of course he needs to be more expansive but that will come when he has full faith in his defensive players, the signing of Eric Bailly should be encouragement alone of that.
There will be an inquest into the result on Tuesday, however the club are improving and can’t fully be judged, in the Champions League at least, until more defensive signings are made.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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