Paul Pogba's up-and-down display symbolises Manchester United's lack of cohesion, purpose and direction
From the highs of last weekend’s assertive victory over Newcastle to this: yet another humbling in Basel. After an opening 45 minutes of sustained pressure and chances, which Jose Mourinho afterwards described as the "perfect half without the goals," the tables were comprehensively turned as FC Basel served the visitors a healthy dose of their own medicine.
Except, for the hosts, this culminated in a late Michael Lang goal – one that ensured that, almost six years on from that infamous defeat here at St Jakob-Park, United were once again felled by this modest Swiss club.
Despite last evening's defeat, though, United's place in the knockout stages of the Champions League is all but assured, barring a 6-0 thumping at the hands of CSKA Moscow next month. After a four-year absence, United are poised to return to the pomp and grandeur of the last-16.
But this is to brush over the cold, hard realities of the worrying identity crisis which is currently haunting the corridors of power at Old Trafford. For, as Wednesday's defeat attested to, this a side not yet sure of itself. United flickered with brilliance here in Switzerland but were equally hamstrung by a lack of cohesion, a lack of purpose or direction which, against a team buoyed by an electric home crowd, served to undermine their efforts.
Paul Pogba's performance, in particular, served as a suitable embodiment of last night's performance. Captain for the evening, the Frenchman initially revelled in his new-found responsibility. As was the case at the weekend, the youngster was United's beating heart, with his desire to impress from the start evident in his tricks-and-thrills approach to the game: a no-look pass here, a boyish step-over there, an ambitious shot on goal to keep his team ticking over.
Indeed, his cutting delivery to Romelu Lukaku in the opening stages of the game, weighted to perfection, pointed to a player returning to the height of his abilities after a lengthy spell on the sidelines. But this quality seemed hard to maintain as his influence and grasp on the match waned. As such, he was hauled off after 66 minutes in place of Nemanja Matic. From fulcrum to flop, Pogba ended his night, as many of United's travelling fans will have done, asking where exactly it went wrong.
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What was perhaps most telling about this trip was that, in his press conference after the defeat, Mourinho struck a surprisingly languid figure. There was no venom in his words. No real spite or malice. No flipped tables or broken glasses. Instead, the Portuguese was reserved and simply accepted the facts laid out in front of him. “I cannot blame the players I think we play a match like this 10 times and nine we win comfortably,” he said afterwards. “The one was now.”
Perhaps, but this wasn't the case – and on any other night, as was the case in December of 2011, it could have ended in despair. Of course, how Mourinho's predecessors would have taken such a result is anyone's guess but it was a reaction that appeared out of kilter with this usually spiky individual. From the players to the manager, then, it seems this team is still lacking that ruthless self-belief which characterised the United of old.
The talent is there, as is the managerial prestige – Mourinho's record speaks for itself – but the pieces of the puzzle have not yet come together to paint the full picture. United are a side still evolving and finding their feet – both on the continent and at home. The club's performances in the Champions League, in particular, have been far from convincing and how they fare against the Barcelonas or PSGs of this competition will provide a more effective means to properly quantify their progress under Mourinho.
In the meantime, it makes for a curious spectacle: like a ship with sails but no rudder. While United have yet to establish their niche within the market, their top-six rivals all carry their own unique tag – for better or for worse. Tottenham: the new boys on the block. Arsenal: the FA Cup specialists. Manchester City: the Invincibles – pt 2? But for United, it's hard to pinpoint the raison d'être behind this team. Since Sir Alex Ferguson's departure, it's no secret the club has wandered into the uncertain overgrowth. Muddled by David Moyes' meddling, hindered by Louis van Gaal's haplessness, and, now, driven by Mourinho's sterile but, at times, effective approach to the game, United still have much to learn, points to prove.
After the encouraging 4-1 demolition of Newcastle, the side are now seemingly back to square one. Having sleepwalked to defeat last night, United must shake themselves out of this slumber and ensure they don't do the same over the coming months. The club is undoubtedly on the road to redemption but, at this rate, it's a path they look destined to never leave.
Independent News Service