A Very Un-Olympian Effort – Four Things We Learned From United’s Surrender At West Ham

Reaction from United’s latest capitulation, this time at West Ham.

BINGO!

Unfamiliar formation?

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Players in new, uncomfortable positions?

Controversial selection?

Too many good players not at the races?

Too many of them looking disinterested?

Too many below par players not raising their own game?

Ponderous, static build up?

A casual approach that results in errors being rife?

Defenders completely unaggressive in their challenges?

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Concession of goals that would be categorised as freak if only they didn’t occur with such regularity that they only serve to represent the quality of the defenders who allowed the chance?

Lack of urgency to recover?

Lack of quality?

Dreadful ‘offensive’ set pieces which actually started more opposition attacks?

A team (for want of a better word) of passengers and no leaders?

An opponent that didn’t need to be anywhere near their best or most committed to win?

That’s just about the full house for characteristics of this post-Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United when faced with defeat.

Statements

Let’s be fair; I have often argued devil’s advocate on behalf of Jose Mourinho and he isn’t helped by the magnification of every decision. Managers are paid to make difficult choices and Mourinho has been crucified more than any other for any. So when he drops the underperforming Alexis Sanchez, despite it being more than overdue, there was the suggestion that this was yet another player Mourinho risked upsetting. It paints the manager as the villain.

If that was unfair, then Mourinho would have known just how significant substituting Paul Pogba would be portrayed as. No matter how he protests otherwise, Mourinho was making a statement move which said everything he wanted it to. He might have felt that it would provoke an unlikely reprieve and justification but no sooner had United got themselves back into the game than they had conceded a third in the sort of fashion that had you looking to the sidelines to see if a towel was being thrown in. 

Manchester United have gone from being consistent in their wild inconsistency and have now moved into the phase where they can, and will, be routinely humiliated. We saw this under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. The players have given up on the manager, many of the fans have too, and it will surely now only be a matter of time before the trigger is pulled.

Mourinho made a system change and that would have been ill-advised when considering the huge failure of its previous use. He made numerous selection errors and there is no excuse for the head-scratching choices of McTominay at centre half and Ashley Young at right back.

His decisions hugely influenced the result and, regardless of any argument about expenditure, it is an incredibly concerning thing that the manager can be more than two years into his reign and not know his best team or best shape.

Will To Win

So, the manager can’t escape criticism. The selection looked poor enough, the formation was even more of a gamble considering it didn’t work the first time it was tried, against Spurs. These are basic errors. You can, as Paul Scholes did on BT Sport, question the players didn’t have the requisite commitment levels but it’s now abundantly clear that the players don’t want to play for the manager.

Still, you have to look at the attitude of the players and wonder if it once more a convenient excuse to allow such an insipid defeat after the early goal was conceded. Certainly, after being outclassed by the two previously worst performing teams they have faced this season, the players have to shoulder as much responsibility as the manager. 

There was some division, and rightly so, about how much should have been expected from Jose Mourinho’s first two years. After winning two trophies, was second place – a distant second – decent enough progress in his second campaign? Was it progress at all? There were some who felt so; that City’s money made their heights an achievement that was unrealistic for United to get to so soon. There were others who felt United could have done better with the money they had spent; they certainly expected better football.

There were problems but the speed of the escalation into a crisis (and, beyond the usual press hyperbole, this most definitely is a crisis) seems to have assisted by helpful hands. It seemed a very unusual decision for Ed Woodward to brief press that Mourinho had been denied funds. 

And, despite the argument about ‘progress’ which effectively came down to objective opinion and semantics, even if you didn’t like how he did it, nobody could deny that Manchester United were better placed and higher placed than the club he inherited. Certainly, some members of the squad had found themselves unhappy with their treatment, but that was an inevitable consequence, even if the identity of the unhappy parties was avoidable. 

Ask any Manchester United fan two or three years ago and they wouldn’t have had any particular loyalty to a player that would come at the cost of that progress. There isn’t the level of disharmony — any which is public, be that the spat with Pogba which continues to divide, or even the benching of Martial or Shaw — which justifies the mass downing of tools we have witnessed from Manchester United players in the last few weeks.

There is no ostracising of a club legend or the distasteful treatment of a female employee which provoked such a sour taste and such disharmony at Real Madrid and Chelsea respectively. If the Paul Pogba saga is used as the catalyst then surely it should be a player whose historical worth and current commitment to the cause is worth the fall out. Not only is this clearly not the case — but Mourinho also brought him to the club! It shouldn’t have inspired such a poisonous rift, and if it did, well, nobody comes out of it looking good. How tame by comparison it would be to use “players being unhappy” as a major reason for Mourinho’s impending dismissal when the players in question would be reserve players to the players in their positions who lined up in United’s last title winning side.

When Mourinho is gone, those players will remain; players who have shrunk under the first sign of difficulty, players who have used every excuse offered to them to underperform and players who by and large will astonishingly come through the Jose Mourinho era with their reputations intact. Some of these players were present under Louis van Gaal where similar excuses were given. Others were there before, some have arrived since. 

Missing Piece

It was posed after United’s recent games in this column and it’s a point worth repeating as it seems to still go under the radar by most. The most damning missing ingredient for Manchester United isn’t their fluent attacking play, it’s the hard work that is the fundamental requirement for any United player, at least in historical values. 

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