“When Chekhov Saw The Long Winter…” : Five Things We Learned From United’s Humiliating League Cup Exit

…or, if not five things we learned, because some things we almost certainly already knew, five discussion points from Manchester United’s exit from the Milky Coca Cola Worthington Carling EFL Definitely Forgotten One Sponsor At Least Carabao Cup.

It’s Not Quite The End, But It’s Beginning To Feel Like It

Jose Mourinho (surely) isn’t going to be sacked on the back of this result; sure, Ron Atkinson may have been fired on the back of a League Cup defeat so there is a precedent, but haven’t United suffered more embarrassing defeats in this competition that are still fresh in the memory? Some even under Sir Alex Ferguson?


It isn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back but it is one of the several straws that will. Losing to Derby County on penalties will surely be one of those evenings we look back upon as a contributory factor to Mourinho’s exit, which now feels inevitable after the off-pitch nonsense that has been making the headlines (more on that in a moment).

United got what they deserved. Saturday’s result against Wolves seemed to be down to a gulf in consistency between the talented and the passengers. Last night it was the same but almost in reverse. There are precious few players who are still playing for the manager. Just about the only two players who seem to have anything invested in Mourinho combined for the last gasp equaliser.

Ever since Ed Woodward publicly undermined Mourinho, it’s been a matter of when and not if. The players knew they could down tools for a man not trusted at the top. 

The Bill Murray Chronicles

…because isn’t it the best time to quote Groundhog Day?

“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope…”

“I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.”

We’ve been here so often that only the cast has changed. When United were capitulating in the late winter of the 2013/2014 season, it was a roll call of some of the most decorated names in the club’s history. 

Ever since then it’s been like a run of dodgy sequels, where a couple of the main cast returned for the second showing, and an almost complete change for the third instalment, which is clearly nowhere near as good as the first but still somehow manages to attract a cult following.


As with most remakes, the difference is that the plot is ostensibly the same but there are key ingredients that set these follow ups as cheap and sordid stories that only sully the brand.

David Moyes was woefully out of his depth. Louis van Gaal wasn’t, but was eventually pushed to that point. Jose Mourinho arrived at United as the most successful manager to have ever been given the job and had enough recent success to justify his reputation; yet he too has been portrayed as yesterday’s man. So, without further adieu, let’s talk about Jose.

The Blame Game

Readers of my writing or social media posts will get the impression that I am ‘pro-Mourinho’. In this climate there is a tendency, even among the most rational of supporters, to sensationalise and project assumptions of extreme points of view.

I am pro-the manager of Manchester United; it doesn’t mean I am blind to the issues. Everything feels just as it did in those weeks and months at the end of Louis van Gaal’s reign. There will be erratic results, bi-polar performances and really, that is the only thing you can count on, because as we’ve already seen, this manager will no longer be given the funds to improve the playing squad. This is what we all have and this is what we all have to put up with.

Some refuse to give Mourinho any credit. But Jose Mourinho improved the defence and midfield structure at the club so much that it provided a solid base for the club to get to second place despite being so poor in attack. The inherent problems that continue to dog the team are the simple facts that the defence is still likely to make significant personal errors and that the attack lack the urgency — or, let’s face it, quality — that a Manchester United team should have. 

It’s effectively pointless at this stage to look at performances like last night and say that the players are responsible and the manager is not. It’s cause and effect. If you berate one of your best players, regardless of any perceived justification, particularly when your own position is pretty precarious, and particularly again if that disagreement is made public, then the team’s performances will give an indication of where their loyalties lie. Everyone has blood on their hands; that is not to say Mourinho is just at fault now, there is a long list, going back to the Sevilla game, of things where he has helped put himself in this position.

Unfortunately in these circumstances the loyalties rarely lie with the supporters or the club itself. The players know that their most effective way of letting their feelings know is to oust the manager and we are now in that process. This squad is apparently filled with players who only need an excuse.

What a shame that Manchester United supporters will be left with players of such attitude. What a shame for the next manager. Jose Mourinho has made many ill-timed comments but his programme notes for this game included a reminder that every game is like a cup final for every visitor to Old Trafford. Far too many United players treat each game as a testimonial. Far too many United supporters indulge those attitudes based only on their dislike for Jose Mourinho.

A more detailed inquest into the failures (and there are plenty) of Jose Mourinho is necessary — that’s why I’m writing a book on it, including the “Transition” series I’m writing to examine the root cause of all United’s recent struggles — and some might say this was all an inevitable conclusion.

But when you can look into the future and guess that the same thing will happen to the next man in charge, at some point you have to decide whether or not you stick with the manager. 

The question then becomes (or, rather, it should) ‘have we seen enough progress to justify sticking with him?’ — I would answer yes, despite this recent storm. Others would argue no, with just as much validity as any reasoned opinion deserves. Some of those people who say no will use the storm as vindication; regardless of the fact that we have been here twice before under different managers. 

It is a complicated situation, not made easier by the fact that three of the main protagonists are hugely polarising individuals (Woodward, Mourinho and Pogba). Perhaps the best thing for the club would be to replace all three. But we all know one will remain, and we all know the identity of that one, and so really all we can expect is more of the same. 


… and that leads to a short, but subtle, point. United fans were crying out for freedom and in the last few weeks Jose Mourinho has made a deliberate effort to have his side play a more liberated game.

Make no mistake though, this does not mean United have been playing attractive football by any historical standards, rather, their recent standards. Mourinho’s style at its most effective still demands a more clinical edge and when you have a group of attackers who either aren’t good enough, aren’t interested enough or just don’t fit in the system, you get the inconsistent bumps we have seen. Their opening goal last night was magnificent in its style and execution. United proceeded to play the next 88 minutes as if they were strangers.

As so many fans have been crying out for a more adventurous approach they have apparently forgotten that there was an even more important quality which is fundamental to any success. 

Instilled by Jimmy Murphy and reinforced by Sir Alex Ferguson, United’s greatest successes are defined by their effort.

Their most ignominious periods are defined by the lack of it.

Uneasy bedfellows

It was always going to end this way, wasn’t it? It’s probably worth rewinding to 2016 and the Champions League-less Manchester United that Jose Mourinho inherited. He needed some significant names to accompany his arrival and that’s where Mino Raiola came in.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was excellent in his short spell but his time had come once he had served his purpose. Henrikh Mkhitaryan might not have been helped by the manager but he was hugely underwhelming; he is continuing to flatter to deceive at Arsenal, and was not happy about being forced out of Old Trafford. 

Romelu Lukaku has no interest in leaving United, and has scaled back Raiola’s duties, leaving Pogba as his major client on the books at the club; and what followed was as inevitable as night following day.

Gone are the days where a player would have to prove himself in order to agitate for a top move. Pogba will have his pick of suitors when he leaves. 

This remains a point to be proven, but you can’t help but feel that his attitude will ultimately hold him back when it comes to being in contention for the Ballon D’or. Even if he was putting in 10/10 performances every week you would have to seriously consider the value taking into account the circus of his entourage. But he isn’t, and it makes the answer much easier. “Even Roy Keane angled for a move!” “Even Bryan Robson did!” Yes, maybe, but these were players who had no equal in terms of importance.

Paul Pogba is agitating for a move. At this moment the transfer fee he would still command would be of greater worth to the club than the player’s on-pitch performances.

There are plenty of fans who back his ‘attack, attack, attack’ comments from the other day. Some of us just want to see actions speaking louder than words for once.

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