Watching Manchester United in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era is very much like Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray film of the 1990s in which the comedian is stuck in a loop, broken not even by death. There is a very definite cycle in the years since the Scot’s retirement, teetering between extreme optimism and crushing disappointment. It doesn’t seem like the trend will be broken any time soon.
On Sunday it was the latter after yet another defeat at Stamford Bridge; this time an embarrassing annihilation. It wasn’t in the script. After all, manager José Mourinho has embraced the job at United, the job he has always wanted, and signed some world-class players in the process. The rest would take of itself.
Misplaced optimism. It could never be so simple; Mourinho was never going to be able to sort the mess out overnight, Paul Poba and Zlatan Ibrahimović cannot win the Premier League on their own and, strangely enough, throwing money at the problem does not produce imminent results. Not that this argument made Monday morning any easier.
Defeats happen and it is up to manager, supporters and players to get over it quickly. But it is not only the manner of the defeat that irks, but the aftermath as well. Antonio Conte had to physically encourage his supporters to cheer Chelsea on even with the Blues 4-0 up. United fans’ loyalty and noisy support said much – and it was not rewarded. Imagine travelling fans’ disappointment at the final whistle when Ibrahimović, Anthony Martial and David De Gea, among others, swapped shirts and joked around with the opponents who had slaughtered them on the field. Worse still when not a single United player applauded the club’s superb away support at the final whistle.
Mourinho apologised for the performance and many feel his players should apologise for the full-time antics too. However, it is the performance that needs most analysis ahead of another mammoth game on Wednesday night as United welcome neighbours City for the Manchester derby. Fortunately for the Reds, the noisy neighbours are not in a good place either.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Defeats happen and it is up to manager, supporters and players to get over it quickly. But it is not only the manner of the defeat that irks, but the aftermath as well.[/blockquote]
Pep Guardiola’s side is without a win in the past five games, and much like United the team has struggled to settle on a consistent formula. Guardiola is well-known for converting midfielders and has tried his best to shoe-horn most of those at his disposal into the same 11, with mixed results.
Still, both managers know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, with Mourinho in particular realising the size of his task. The Portuguese remained bullish ahead of the derby, although laid down the gauntlet to his wounded side.
“I would prefer next to play in the Premier League. It’s a bad feeling in the Premier League. With the combination of results, the gap to the point is six points,” Mourinho said after Sunday’s defeat.
“We have had a very difficult period of matches. We lost this week, and even in the match when we played phenomenal against Stoke, we lost points then. Now we need to win matches. I am not saying they are the easy ones, but we have Burnley, we have Swansea, West Ham, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough – matches that we need to win.
“The top four, top five they have to play between themselves like we did this week against Chelsea and Liverpool. They are going to lose points too, so we are in the run, but there is nowhere to hide. We are really, really sad. But again, this is not for kids, this is for men and we have to be men and work for the next one.”
And despite the poor run of results it is refreshing to hear a manager who is confident that he can guide the club back to English football’s top table. The opportunity to knock the noisy neighbours out of the League Cup will go a long way to reassure those who may think otherwise.
United subs from: Romero, Darmian, Rojo, Fosu-Mensah, Fellaini, Schneiderlin, Memphis, Ibrahimovic, Rooney
City subs from: Bravo, Kompany, Clichy, Sagna, Fernando, Gundogan, Navas, Iheanacho
After suffering embarrassment at Stamford Bridge Mourinho must avoid further ridicule on Wednesday. Victory is crucial to stop the rot now setting in at Old Trafford. The feel good factor back cannot be underestimated. It has deserted the club since the opening weeks of the season.
Mourinho would be justified in replacing the entire back four after Sunday’s match, although lack of squad depth is likely to save some. Antonio Valencia was possibly the only Red to come away with any credit after putting in several dangerous crosses that should have been converted. The Ecuadorian will keep his place, but Eric Bailly is out after suffering a knee injury. He will likely miss at least two months action, leaving Daley Blind free to partner Chris Smalling in the centre. Smalling was arguably at fault for all four goals on Sunday and needs a rapid improvement in performances if his manager is not to enter the market in January. Luke Shaw will regain his place at left-back as he nears full fitness.
Marouane Fellaini is set to be banished from the first team after a disastrous performance at Stamford Bridge. The Belgian was bullied in midfield by Nemanja Matic and N’golo Kante and will be replaced by Michael Carrick, whose composure makes a strong case for inclusion in the first team from here out.
Elsewhere in midfield, Ander Herrera has suffered from being asked to perform a different task in each game. The Basque midfielder was tidy enough in possession against Chelsea, but was not the destructive force demonstrated at Anfield a week earlier. Paul Pogba continues in midfield after another hit and miss week. It is a concern for everyone at Old Trafford that the Frenchman could become the fourth club record signing in a row where the manager has failed to build on outrageous talent. Mourinho must quickly learn how to get best out of his record buy if results are to improve.
Further forward Ibrahimović could drop to the bench after another hugely disappointing display at Stamford Bridge. The Swede missed another clear-cut chance with United 2-0 down that could have turned the game for the visitors.
Ibrahimović could be replaced by Juan Mata, who has been one of United’s better players this season, allowing Marcus Rashford to return to his favoured role at number nine. Rashford has been a sacrificed to the cause in the past week after being asked to perform a work-horse role. It is no coincidence that United’s best performances this season have been when Rashford has been let off his leash.
Anthony Martial may line up on the left in place of Jesse Lingard if Mourinho looks to target City’s weak full-backs. The French starlet has two goals in his last three games and his pace on the counter attack was missed both at Anfield and Stamford Bridge.
As far as weeks go it hasn’t been the best for United’s manager, having been ridiculed for parking the bus at Anfield before suffering an embarrassing defeat at his old club. The Special One will have to exorcise his Pep shaped demons if United’s season is to get back on track.
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Long, I Hussin
Fourth Official: L Mason
United 1-2 City