By Richard Cann
United’s form and results have dipped a little of late, after that terrific nine game winning run which catapulted Mourinho’s boys back into contention for the top four and kept hopes alive in all three cup competitions. Some of the players responsible for that excellent sequence have gone off the boil a little, including Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba. They will naturally experience fluctuations in form, but when that small core of genuine match-winners aren’t winning matches life becomes a bit of a slog. The draws with Liverpool and Stoke demonstrated some old failings, including lapses of concentration defensively, a lack of offensive fluidity and a failure to take chances. Having seen so much progress it’s all been a bit frustrating, as rivals at the top have dropped points and United have failed to take advantage.
However, it is difficult to complain too much in a week in which the team have reached a major final and progressed in the FA Cup. I choose not to read too much into the wretched defeat at Hull in midweek, largely because the players looks about as complacent about the outcome as we, the fans, were. Hull are a mess and were in the process of selling two of their best players, but so lax was United’s approach that they were the better team throughout and thoroughly deserved the win, even if it was not enough to take them to Wembley. That said, the first half penalty which allowed Tom Huddlestone to give them the lead was another farcical refereeing decision in a season of pathetic officiating. There was little if any contact between defender and attacker in the box as a corner came in, but with the home player slumping to the ground the official couldn’t wait to point to the spot. The tw*t.
Still, Mourinho must have been fuming with his team at half time and was clearly taking the game seriously, if his lineup was anything to go by. Afterwards he refused to acknowledge the penalty as a goal, which is fair enough, but his players were playing like chumps. Beforehand he had criticised Anthony Martial, suggesting that he had not been doing enough to get picked in recent weeks, then watched on as alternative choice Jesse Lingard did what he does in 80% of his games: absolutely nothing. On the opposite wing Marcus Rashford looked more lively, perhaps the only United player to appear bothered, while at the other end of the scale Chris Smalling’s nervy, error-strewn performance offered more evidence of why he will be very lucky to make it past the summer. Being scared of a football is and has never been ideal for a professional footballer.
The second half proceeded in the same manner as the first, although United finally appeared to have some breathing room following Paul Pogba’s neat finish after a smart move down the left. Off went the lights once more and Niasse (Niasse ffs) put The Tigers ahead again. After more minutes of unnecessary nervousness we and the players were eventually put out of our misery by the final whistle. There ended 90 minutes we’ll never get back, which brought to a close a 17 match unbeaten run but which takes us to Wembley once again, to face Southampton, who hilariously won at Anfield, becoming the second of three teams to do so in a week. Note to Jürgen: If you’re going to play high intensity gegenpressing in England you’re going to need a few more players and a realisation that lower league clubs aren’t a bunch of Bavarian amateurs. Man of the Match at Hull was definitely the away support, magnificent again and the only Reds in attendance bar Rashford who nudged above five out of ten. Bravo, as ever.
On Sunday, United faced Wigan at home in the FA Cup. Jose restored Martial to the lineup and promised that if he played well he would start against Hull in the Premier League midweek. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. The first half was poor, which was a worry, but Marouane Fellaini continued a decent recent scoring run to head United ahead. Mourinho apparently values the Belgian, if the manager’s anal ferret Duncan Castles (what a signing he’s been) is to be believed, and I’m grudgingly starting to see why. The lad is wretched at football and my heart will always sink when he’s included, but he offers an alternative approach which paid dividends in the first leg against Hull, late in the game versus Liverpool and again yesterday. Martin Keown suggested on BT Sport that Reds are ‘starting to see him as something of a hero’, which is patently absolute bollocks though.
Mourinho understandably rotated hugely for the Wigan game, most notably starting Schweinsteiger Sergio Romero and Timothy Fosu-Mensah and later giving substitute debuts to Axel Tuanzebe and Joel Pereira. Never let it be said that the Portuguese doesn’t know where the Brownie Points are stashed at Old Trafford. If the first half had been understandably disjointed, the second was far more fluid. Martial moved to the left after starting as a striker and United began to flow. The Frenchman crossed for Smalling to head home, then aided Mkhitaryan in a slick counter-attack before delivering excellently for the Armenian to slide home. The only disappointment was that the 21 year old did not get a goal himself, having a strike ruled out for a high boot by Schweinsteiger. The German got the fourth with an overhead-flick from close range, show in front he has more to his game than Happy Birthdays and United were comfortably through to the fifth round. Where we hope for Sutton United at home, on TV, to boil as much ongoing piss as usual.
Going forward United’s aim now must be to take advantage of a very soft fixture list until April to gain a top four cushion before an absolutely disgusting run-in, to continue to progress in the Europa League as an insurance policy and win Mourinho’s first trophy at the club in the League Cup final at Wembley against Southampton on the 26th February. To achieve that performances will need to improve once again, and any repeat of the dire 90 minutes at Hull will sabotage that February final, but there is still plenty to play for. Castles claims that Mourinho is still pushing for a midfield signing in January, which is no surprise given how tired the overworked Pogba, Carrick and Herrera looked on Humberside. That appears unlikely to happen however, which explains the rehabilitation of Schweinsteiger. The manager may be stubborn, but he is also the arch-pragmatist. That pragmatism must also tell him that any forward line he can put out would benefit from the presence of Anthony Martial. He may not have reached anything like the heights of last season, but his pace and trickery are in short supply elsewhere in the squad. After the Frenchman did well against Wigan we will find out on Wednesday if Mourinho is true to his word.