There are some weeks, Dear Reader, when I sit down to write this blog with a sense of dread, because short of a single match nothing of any substance has happened at United. I declined to submit anything at all last week on account of there not even being any football to recount. This, however, is NOT one of those weeks. My only concern today is how in the name of the Sweet Baby Jesus I’m going to fit it all in to just over 1,000 words. And whether I can actually remember all that occurred, for I am middle-aged now and my memory is not what it was. Bear with me and I shall do my very best.
Let’s begin with Dumb and Dumber. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling obviously. Now, either getting injured at any time is rarely a surprise for United fans, and neither would it normally be of enormous concern given the distinctly average abilities and possibility for calamity that both offer the starting eleven. Eric Bailly and Marcus Rojo has now become the centre back pairing of choice for much if the supporter base. However, even United need a squad of sorts, with a heinous fixture pile-up incoming and with a rapidly growing injury list. The perils of relying on two such buffoons as both picked up injuries on England duty which could potentially rule them out for the remainder of the season. This would simply be unfortunate coincidence, were it not the fact that it was Smalling, in training for the national team, who trod on Phil Jones’ foot and caused the latter’ injury. Were we in any doubt about the veracity of this claim, there was a giant picture on the back of most of the daily papers showing Smalling’s foot planted perfectly on Jones’. Bravo lads, bravo. Perhaps this is the last we’ll see of both and thus something good will have come of the sorry episode. But probably not, because football is no longer kind to United fans. Timothy Fosu-Mensah could be forgiven for spying an opportunity to get rare gametime, but Jose Mourinho will probably pick Wayne Rooney at centre back before trying an inexperienced youngster there. Pft.
Were the injury news last week not bad/good (delete as appropriate) enough we were then stunned by the news that little cuddly Juan Mata had, out of the blue, had surgery and would likely miss much of the remainder of the season, or as Mourinho said, “a long time”. This sucks, because whilst the super-amiable Spaniard might not have the pace to be a truly exceptional attacking midfielder he has, this season, become United’s most prolific creator and goalscorer behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Admittedly that isn’t saying much, but as the West Brom game would demonstrate, the team’s goal threat is distinctly Troy Deeney at the best of times. Given the issues with injury and suspension that United are currently carrying, without him Troy Deeney becomes 100% Rudy Gestede. And Rudy Gestede can’t be facing Chris Smalling every week. Of the current absences from the team my suspicion is that Mata is an injury too far, particularly with the team facing nine matches in April.
As if to confirm my above point, which I promise I thought up the day before the wretched West Brom performance, United continued their desperate crawl after the top four places in the Premier League by seeing another opportunity and comprehensively fucking it up again. Obviously. Because this side has the mental fortitude and attacking conviction of a Van Gaal side, the only obvious difference being that it at least pretends to be moderately offensive. Sure, Zlatan, Pogba and Herrera were all absent, but we’ve drawn seven at home with them so it’s hardly an outlier. A forward line of Martial, Rashford, Lingard and Mkhitaryan should have had enough to break down an über-defensive West Brom (Watford would achieve it twice three days later), but failed miserably to do so, reinforcing a couple of observations that are becoming increasingly clear about Mourinho’s impact at United to date:
The Independent’s Miguel Delaney recently opined that throughout his career the Portuguese has specialised in making teams compact and difficult to beat by forensic drilling. There is no doubt he has achieved that this season. However, as Eden Hazard confirmed this week, he does very little offensive work and trusts his forward players to work it out themselves and improvise. If your attackers are Hazard and Costa, Ronaldo, Ozil and Benzema or Drogba, Robben and Lampard then this is fine, but when you have less developed and/or less talented options they simply don’t have the nouse or quality to break defensive teams down consistently. This has been a problem, particularly at home, all season and as we’ve seen only Pogba and Ibrahimovic have the talent and vision to regularly profit. On Saturday United’s attacking was chaotic and almost Moyesesque, as moderate players in poor form struggled to break West Brom’s defence down and ultimately resorted to hopeful crossing. Mourinho’s approach does not work for players of this calibre.
Whilst experienced players like Valencia and Herrera have benefitted from Mourinho’s management, the younger ones like Rashford, Martial and the MIA Timothy Fosu-Mensah have regressed. We were warned about this and chose (and perhaps still choose) to dismiss it as as yet unproven, but the evidence thus far is at the very least slightly concerning.
Mourinho was furious post-match and laid into his four attacking players, suggesting that all but they had done their job. His demeanour indicated that the 0-0 draw had confirmed in his mind what we already know, that this team is likely not good enough to qualify for the Champions League through league position and that failure to do so will represent a huge under-performance both from his players and himself. The cult of Mourinho causes those who submit such an opinion to meet vehement social media resistance. His defenders re-write history with regards to pre-season expectations and argue that progression from a totally ineffective offensive unit to a semi-functional one is sufficient progress for £150m of player investments and the employment of a manager on vast wages who specifically specialises in short-term improvement. Mourinho knows that results and overall league performance have not been good enough. LVG got sacked for missing top four last season and Mourinho’s team have accrued less points at this stage of the season as the Dutchman’s did last. The goal tally is only marginally better and is worse than in Van Gaal’s first season. It’s not enough. Not nearly. But Martin from Cleethorpes knows best.
One thing for which Mourinho cannot, in my opinion, be blamed is the desperate career regression experienced by Luke Shaw. After the West Brom game the manager launched into a cutting deconstruction of the left back, who was available for the game but was not included in the match-day squad. When asked about his status Jose replied:
“When asked what Shaw had to do to return to the squad, Mourinho replied: “Who? Luke Shaw? It’s difficult for him to be on the bench because I cannot compare him with Ashley Young, with Darmian, with Blind. I cannot compare the way he trains, the way he commits, the focus, the ambition. I cannot compare. He is a long way behind.”
Damning and seemingly terminal words for Shaw, whose commitment and conditioning was also an issue for Louis Van Gaal. Those with longer memories may also recall stories suggesting that both Roy Hodgson and former Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino highlighted and tried to address Shaw’s fitness issues. Whilst several journalists have reported that some in the United squad have been perturbed by Mourinho’s treatment of the player, the MEN’s Samuel Luckhurst observed that, “Shaw’s training performances and attitude have been a concern for months. Even teammates say Shaw ‘doesn’t help himself”. It may be time to accept that potential counts for nothing without application and the drive to succeed. Throw in a major injury and that hunger to be the best that you can be becomes even more important. Perhaps the best solution would be a loan next season. Given that United will need to meet ‘homegrown’ player quotas that lessens the likelihood that either Jones or Smalling or both will leave in the summer too. Genuinely BAD TIMES.
But wait, on Monday EVERYTHING CHANGED. Apparently Shaw went to see Mourinho and all was forgiven, or partially forgiven anyway, a remarkable and slightly suspicious turn of events. Everything changed on Tuesday too, this time on the pitch. The Portuguese, so critical of his front four against West Brom singled out Henrikh Mkhitaryan for personal beef and benched both the Armenian and Anthony Martial. What followed sure showed them who is in charge, as their flame-proof replacements struggled. With Valencia also missing out, a team was fielded which contained a sizeable contingent of squad-bods who, with the exception of the returning Zlatan, had scored a grand total of seven league goals and provided nine league assists ALL SEASON. The wide players, Rashford and Lingard had one League goal between them since September. If Saturday had hinted at a terrible concoction of Moyes and LVG, this went the whole hog. The players didn’t believe and neither did the largely silent fans, the Stretford End beginning the night with a half-arsed chorus of ‘Something Good’ before realising their error and losing the will to live.
Unsurprisingly a team filled with tat and a striker who often prefers to play in midfield struggled for fluency and fucked up every opportunity they ground out. Early on Zlatan dawdled when clean through and had his shot blocked, Herrera hit the bar when scoring looked simple and lots of teasing crosses went to no one, because no one ever bothers to attack the ball in the six yard box. Everton scored through Jagielka, which seemed almost incidental to the ongoing shite-fest. At half time Pogba was thrown on, back from his poorly muscle, for Daley Blind, and Herrera moved to left back. Then Mourinho changed his mind and swapped his full backs, or they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing initially, which you’d have thought they’d have been told at half time, but who the hell knows anymore. At least the tempo was better. United nearly scored from a set-piece too, Pogba heading against the crossbar, an occurrence which is now more hilarious than disappointing and will allow the deluded amongst us to continue to pretend that this is all down to cruel luck. Mkhitaryan came on for Carrick and Young was replaced by, err, Luke Shaw. Miles off first team football one day, a rescue act the next. Not that it mattered. Everton defended with ease and broke with menace. Then Herrera crossed beautifully and Ibrahimovic headed home.
And the flag went up for offside, which looked a little harsh. MEGALOLZ. Fellaini missed a couple of chances, the useless lump. United punted in long balls and crosses and Eric Bailly defended like a shining light in a sea of slightly rotten effluent. But the goal would not come, because now it rarely does. The final minutes saw an £89m footballer fuzzing long balls up to Ibrahimovic and Fellaini, which is a bit embarrassing. Then, as the light was dying, Luke Shaw shot and Ashley Williams handled magnificently and was sent for the latest of early baths. PENALTY! Zlatan, who missed haplessly against Bournemouth, this time converted and pinched a point which was of no use whatsoever to United. 1-1. Two draws at home, a single goal and a final confirmation that this team is not good enough to finish Top Four. It doesn’t have the quality, the balance or the bottle to make it and that reflects poorly on all three managers who have led the club since the retirement of Sir Alex. League Cup or not, this campaign has been a disappointment, which only a Europa League victory can salvage. £150m for more shots, less Premier League goals and at the very best equivalent results does not wash. Improvement on the absolute pits should not be reason to suspend all criticism or proclaim a new manager a success. As @MrScripto put it rather crudely on Twitter: “you’ve really set your standards low if Mourinho simply improving our style of play from that Dutch retard is all that makes you happy.” Post-match Mourinho indulged in some rather unpleasant trolling of Luke Shaw and stated that his players are playing ‘without confidence’. That’s probably because you slate them at every available opportunity Jose.
Regardless, the season must be salvaged, because with qualification for the Champions League now looking increasingly likely the implications for such a failure are becoming increasingly stark. Not only will United miss out on the £60-80m prize and TV money for participating in the tournament once again, and face a cut in the Adidas sponsorship income, but having been absent from the competition for three out of four seasons qualification would increasingly appear to be a blip rather than the norm. The ability to sell the club to the very best players on the basis that a return to CL is inevitable decreases by the year and Mourinho no longer has his exciting new project and personal guarantee of an immediate upturn in results to sell. Money will always talk to a degree, but the very best have significant options and it is the very best that United need. The Europa League thus becomes increasingly important and it would be no surprise to see Mourinho begin to prioritise it forthwith. Perhaps he should also focus on coaching better too, introducing some fresh offensive ideas and trying to repair the fragile confidence of many of his attacking players.
And finally, Bastian Schweinsteiger has finally departed for Chicago Fire and the MLS, so now more rousing cheers for rare substitute appearances and wishing teammates Happy Birthday on Twitter. He scored in his first game in the States, resulting in some questioning Mourinho’s decision to let him go. By that logic Sam Johnstone’s excellent performances for Aston Villa this season mark him down as the obvious replacement for David De Gea if, as reported, the Spaniard finally does the sensible thing and jumps from this smouldering ship for a trophy-laden existence at Real Madrid…….