Regrets? Jose Mourinho must have a few after last night. Starting Marouane Fellaini? Moving Marcus Rashford to the right? Accommodating Alexis Sanchez? Persevering with Chris Smalling? Loosening the midfield with Paul Pogba?
“Regrets? I don’t have regrets,” Mourinho said during a brusque post-match press conference. “I did my best, the players did their best, we tried, we lost. And that’s football.” He did his best? Someone should introduce him to Sean Connery’s quote from The Rock about that one.
United managed four attempts on target against a side who have conceded five goals on five separate occasions this season and sieved 12 in their six Champions League group games. Sevilla have a minus goal difference in La Liga and four days after United eked out a draw in the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium Atletico Madrid put five past them on the same turf. Atletico exited the Champions League at the group stage.
An intrepid Spanish journalist asked Mourinho: “Do you think it’s acceptable, the performance of your team, given the difference in size and budget of the clubs and investments?”
“Sí,” was the reply. That was the start of Mourinho’s terse and monosyllabic responses. Mourinho wanted to be anywhere but sat in the hushed Old Trafford press room but if he genuinely believes that then he is deluded.
United are unrecognisable from the team which beat opponents in the tunnel in the first two months of the season. They plundered 33 goals in their first 11 competitive matches and were level on points with City in mid-October. The team in the five months that have elapsed since is so unrecognisable it could be a different side.
That 0-0 at Anfield on October 14 was the harbinger. United refused to take on a team there for the taking and later that day City annihilated Stoke 7-2. United’s draw set the tone for their title collapse; defeat at Huddersfield the following week and then Chelsea a fortnight later left them eight points adrift of champions-elect City, a mirage in the distance.
Mourinho should have learnt that those ends do not justify the means but stooped to that level versus Sevilla, who have shipped 42 goals in 28 league fixtures. “I don’t think the performance was bad,” Mourinho shrugged. It wasn’t bad. It was rotten.
As Mourinho approached the Stretford End tunnel on Tuesday evening he appeared to be specifically booed by sections of the crowd. That was excessive and many may have awoken this morning with a pang of regret. Their raw reactions were forgivable after witnessing the most humiliating United knockout elimination in the Champions League era, though. On the basis of the standard of opposition and indefensible approach, Sevilla trumps any previous ejection.
Mourinho and the players were content with the goalless draw in Spain three weeks earlier and had backed themselves to overcome Sevilla on home soil, adamant the occasion would overawe their visitors after they squandered presentable openings in the first leg. Such hubris.
Sevilla’s players mirrored their breezy supporters as much as United’s did. Anxiety spread from the stands, where the first ‘Attack, attack, attack’ chant was aired in the 37th minute and the crowd yelled ‘Take him on’ at the regressing Rashford. The only standing ovation Mourinho elicited was by calling Pogba back to come on.
United would be worse off without Mourinho and his willingness to mix it up is a strength which has schooled domestic competitors like Mauricio Pochettino, Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp. It is also his patent weakness. United declared at 2-0 against a dejected Liverpool at the weekend, inviting pressure and asking for trouble which they got through a comical own goal before they survived a strong penalty shout.
That mentality programmes the players and pragmatism too readily reigns over purity. It happened towards the end of last term when Mourinho grew so impatient with United’s profligacy he reverted to a surreal style which consisted of a back six at relegation fodder Middlesbrough while 2-0 ahead. Boro scored.
Something similar has occurred in recent weeks, a switch perhaps sparked by the chastening 2-0 defeat at Tottenham, the night Pogba has still not recovered from. United have enjoyed some stirring successes since (Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Liverpool) without truly convincing and they were inferior for much of those matches.
Since Anfield United have played stirring football a handful of times. The home stroll against Newcastle and away wins over Watford and Arsenal within the same week were stimulating and there were bullish halves at Everton and versus Liverpool. It is a derisory return and United supporters accept the style is palatable if they win and grim if they lose. It was never grimmer than on Tuesday.
Regrets? Mourinho must have a few.
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