Wednesday night represented something of a watershed for Manchester United's season.
Whichever way you read their season so far, it's hard to look back at the first leg of their Round of 16 knockout tie with Sevilla as anything less than a disappointment.
Yes they go into a home fixture with a clean slate, likely to win and progress into the quarterfinals. But this felt more like a statement of non-intent by Jose Mourinho's outfit.
In light of this, RealSport's football writers sat down to discuss Manchester United's season to decide where it's all going wrong for the most successful club in Premier League history.
On social media last night, Manchester United fans seemed fairly disgruntled about their performance in Spain. Is 0-0 away from home to Sevilla a disappointing result for Manchester United?
Nestor Watach: A little, but not a disaster. The performance will have been more concerning than the result - they created very few chances and came close to conceding. But the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán is a very difficult stadium to go to and better teams than Manchester United have come away with less. It feels like a missed opportunity to make the same sort of statement all the other English teams did. Manchester United failed to show they belong amongst the European elite again - but they should get the win at home and make the quarterfinals, which is the important thing.
Colin Millar: There is always a sense of disappointment when your team does not win a match but a draw in Sevilla is an acceptable outcome. This is a side with only one home defeat in 15 months and who thrive on vocal and passionate fan backing.
Callum Rice-Coates: The result in itself was not a disappointment but the manner in which it was achieved certainly was. There was a paucity of ambition, a painful lack of attacking adventure from the away side in Seville. It was perhaps unsurprising, given Jose Mourinho’s history of approaching such games with the intention of stifling the opposition but that made it no less frustrating.
Nor was the performance in any way convincing. Sevilla had chances to score but were left to rue their profligacy and the reflexes of David De Gea. Manchester United, meanwhile, did almost nothing of note in the final third, content simply to leave without losing. Perhaps Mourinho will be vindicated in the second leg. United are certainly favourites to progress, even without an away goal to their name.
Manchester United fans, though, are not accustomed to such obvious negativity. A team with enviable talent - and a seemingly unlimited budget to spend on more of it - set up as one would expect from Levante or Leganes at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
Chris Weir: Far from it. Sevilla aren't the same side that won consecutive Europa Leagues but, with Éver Banega and Steven N'Zonzi in tow, Vincenzo Montella's side had more than enough to hurt Manchester United. They would have too had it not been for more heroics from David de Gea. Manchester United stemmed the Sevillano attack and didn't concede so the tie is balanced in their favour.
How do you assess Manchester United’s season so far?
NW: In absolute terms, not bad. It’s too much of an ask for any club to keep up with the potentially record-breaking pace of Manchester City and Manchester United have progressed in the FA Cup and Champions League. However, to look beyond that, there are question marks.
You can’t read much into the progression in the FA Cup or Champions League as neither of those competitions have posed a real test yet - yesterday’s away trip to Sevilla was the first one, and they were fortunate to come away with a draw. In the league, they might be second in the table but they’re only four points from fifth and suffering a real drop in form.
That is concerning because Liverpool and Spurs are doing well and close to catching them. Manchester United haven’t been able to consolidate their place the top four just yet and a loss to Chelsea at the weekend would put that in further jeopardy. Given the investment in the club, it would be a huge failure for them not to finish in the European places.
CM: Mixed: an improvement on last season but with clear structural problems. In very real terms, they are second in the league, in the FA Cup quarter-finals and well-placed in the Champions League knockouts. On paper, this represents a massive improvement. However, being so far off-the-pace and with the side looking unbalanced still represents big underlying concerns.
CR-C: The season has been a strange one for Manchester United. It began with aspirations of domestic success but Manchester City’s superiority quickly became evident. It has left them chasing in second place but without any real hope. Often they have been unconvincing in the Premier League. They have lost two of their last three – against Tottenham and Newcastle – and, although they have been second for most of the season, even a top-four place is not yet secured.
In the Champions League, they breezed through the group stages comfortably and were handed what many viewed as a favourable draw against Sevilla. They could yet progress to the latter stages of the competition, and they remain in contention for the FA Cup. As it stands, though, United’s season has been little better than par, although a significant upgrade on last year.
Does this show an upward progression from the tenures of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal?
NW: Yes, it does - but that’s too low of a benchmark to be considered a great thing. It should also not be forgotten that Louis van Gaal left the club with an FA Cup and the club finishing in fifth place, losing out on the top four to Manchester City on goal difference.
Last season, they finished sixth under Mourinho and seven points away from the top four, though that was numbed with the Europa League win. There’s been a progression but there should be when the club have been able to invest in players the quality of Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku and Eric Bailly.
CM: There is clear progress from Louis Van Gaal’s tenure but this is driven more by superior playing talent rather than any massive upgrades in tactics. The Dutchman steadied the ship from a disastrous nine months of David Moyes. It’s easy to forget just how poorly Manchester United played in that initial period after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. They haven’t finished in the top three since and haven’t been in the Champions League knockouts in four years. Progress is slow but it tangible.
CR-C: There has undoubtedly been an improvement, but progression is another matter entirely. As expected, Mourinho’s tenure has felt short-sighted, focused only on the short-term. Compared to Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham, a project that has been thoughtfully constructed and a team that has developed enviably as a group, Manchester United feel almost improvised. There is still a lack of cohesion, a suggestion that there is no end goal to reach. Jose Mourinho's team have repeatedly done just enough to keep things ticking over to meet the high expectations of supporters.
This is not a side that feels finely tuned. Manchester United are far from the level of Mourinho’s best Chelsea teams or his Inter treble-winning side. They are certainly in a better position than under Moyes and Van Gaal but that was a minimum expectation when Mourinho arrived. The team has seen huge investment, yet any true progression has remained minimal.
CW: Manchester City's brilliance has put Mourinho's achievements in a less forgiving light. Manchester United have the best defence in the league, an impressive feat given the unheralded defensive pairing of Smelling and Jones. The Europa League and League Cup were brilliant successes last season; fans forget just how much of an omnishambles Mourinho inherited from van Gaal. That they secured champions league football in his first season and has them in second now is really quite admirable.
It does seem as though Jose Mourinho has lost his edge somewhat in recent seasons. Do you agree? And why do you think this has happened?
NW: I don’t think it’s possible to argue otherwise given his record over the last few years. Including this season - on the safe assumption his team don’t catch Manchester City - in his last six years in management, he has won a solitary league title and challenged on only one other occasion, also making little impact in Europe. These are benchmarks that a top-level coach, at elite level clubs, are judged - not by Europa Leagues and domestic cups. Are Unai Emery and Arsene Wenger considered at the top level of coaching?
The past few years have seen Mourinho implode remarkably at Chelsea. He left Madrid in ignominy after leaving a toxic atmosphere and losing the Copa del Rey final to Simeone’s Atletico - who also beat his Chelsea in 2014. He was bested tactically in Europe by Laurent Blanc with PSG in 2015 and Jurgen Klopp with Dortmund in 2013 - you have to go back to his Inter side to see him masterminding a European encounter.
Along with Rafael Benitez, Mourinho revolutionised English football when he arrived in 2004. The shape and approach of their teams had a huge influence on top-level English football - and started an era of dominance in Europe. But things have moved on - variants of high pressing, adopted in different ways, now define how football is played. Pochettino, Klopp and Guardiola are the vanguards of football in 2018 - and Mourinho’s record in fixtures against the top six suggests he doesn’t have the answers.
CM: It’s debatable, there certainly seems to be a lack of ruthlessness as opposed to previous years. It is likely Mourinho has taken it upon himself to tone down his behaviour on the touchline and in interviews, and it’s fair to say his behaviour has been commendable. He has also answered other concerns – namely promoting youth talents and his signings have largely been with a long-term perspective – yet perhaps this has diminished his other qualities.
CR-C: Perhaps Mourinho is growing increasingly cantankerous with age. Perhaps players are increasingly aware of his shortcomings, wary of his confrontational nature. There certainly appears to have been a notable decline in recent years. Mourinho’s final season with Chelsea was disastrous and he is yet to convince at Manchester United. It could be that he has not adequately adapted to changing tactical trends, or that he is a coach whose success depends on circumstance.
He is not the imposing, all-conquering figure he once was. That aura of self-assured superiority has gone, replaced by an underlying vulnerability and defensiveness that has often been encapsulated by his side’s performances. It seems that Mourinho has grown infatuated with his own reputation as a destroyer of big games, a coach who does what’s necessary and only what’s necessary to get results. That was in evidence against Sevilla.
CW: Mourinho hasn't lost his edge but there's a nagging feeling that football culture is moving on. The way Chelsea's players downed tools after the Eva Carneiro incident hinted that the age of the domineering, win-at-all costs coach is over. Players now must be cajoled, micromanaged and convinced. Mourinho's hellfire, defence-first approach strikes a discordant note in an era of Kloppite motivators and self-styled 'thinkers' like Pep Guardiola.
Given Mourinho made a big thing of Manchester United winning ‘three’ trophies last season, is there a problem if his team win nothing this time around?
NW: No team can be denigrated for winning trophies - you can only beat who is front of you, after all. Last season’s League Cup and Europa League were emblematic of the success Mourinho aims to bring to the club and helped lay a foundation of a winning mentality. But ultimately trophies of that level do not define Manchester United and cannot be considered sufficient for a club of that size. Unlike at Liverpool or Spurs, last season also allows Manchester United to go without winning trophies in the short-term without it being considered a drought.
Trophies, especially lesser trophies, aren’t everything. Take Pochettino and Wenger - the Frenchman has won three FA Cups in the last four years, whilst Pochettino hasn’t yet won anything at Spurs. Yet nobody could possibly argue Wenger is doing better than Pochettino: the latter is building a project with the team improving, whilst Arsenal are patently in decline.
This applies to Mourinho. If he can get the team out of this slump and finally put together a cohesive system that gets the best out of Paul Pogba, that’s the most important thing. Building a project that looks like it’s moving forward. To show that they can challenge for the trophies that define them - the league and Champions League - is more important at this point than the FA Cup.
CM: Not necessarily, although it would represent a season of underachievement. A number of players have improved this season and the league campaign, while far from ideal, is significantly better. Manchester United are a club built on winning trophies and performing at a high level in Europe and Mourinho has rekindled this culture, even if it still a work in progress
CR-C: In general, football’s obsession with trophies is tiresome. But Mourinho, a coach who places such importance on silverware, has made clear his view that success should be judged by the number of trophies in the cabinet.
Mourinho will likely consider the campaign a failure if it ends without a title, although he will surely have assessed the situation realistically. Few expect United to win the Champions League – particularly after last night’s underwhelming display – and the Premier League is out of the question.
The FA Cup, then, is the most winnable trophy. What seems more important is the position United find themselves going into next season. Will they be at the point of challenging on every front, with a cohesive, fluid team of players all aware of their roles? Going without trophies does not necessarily constitute a disaster.
CW: There's room for both types of success in football. Marcelo Bielsa can share the same wheelhouse as Carlos Bilardo; both are halcyon figures in Argentinian football but for different reasons and because of different successes. Mourinho didn't bring about the kind of paradigm shift that Guardiola did - his schtick has always been about winning trophies. Not winning any this season would mean failing by the only metric he cares about.
What would you say a good season for Manchester United would consist of at this point?
NW: Top four is the least of their expectations: getting back on form and finishing strongly to get second ahead of Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea would have a symbolic importance. They have every chance of winning the FA Cup, which would add some gloss to their season but, like Arsenal, would not mask underlying problems.
Winning the Champions League is probably too big of an ask but if they can get make some kind of big statement and put in a performance with fight and quality against the likes of Bayern Munich or Barcelona, might help build belief in what Mourinho is building. Second, the FA Cup, and a half-decent stab at Europe.
CM: Winning the FA Cup – which looks achievable with the elimination of three of their top six rivals – would continue Manchester United’s recent trophy success, while a top-four finish in the league would be a minimum requirement, although anything less than third would probably be considered a disappointment. A sustained run in Europe (minimum of quarterfinal appearance) should also be factored in.
CR-C: Winning the competitions they remain in contention for and finishing second in the Premier League would, in the eyes of most onlookers, be considered a good season. But that seems increasingly unlikely. Instead, perhaps United should be searching for a solution to the stylistic dilemma that has plagued them since Mourinho’s arrival. Few are satisfied by the football being played; this is especially pertinent for a club that have established a reputation for entertaining, attacking teams.
A good season might consist of finding a settled starting XI, of finding a place in the team for the plethora of attacking players without stifling them, of satiating the demand for less cynical football. Mourinho’s current approach is reliant upon winning trophies: the ends will justify the means. Without success, though, his style, imposed so relentlessly, begins to look increasingly bleak.
CW: A good season for Manchester United would be second place in the league and a Champions League semi-final. They are capable of both and a result like that would show real progress for a team that still feels like it's under design.
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