Sunday 20 October 2019

Jonathan Liew: 'How did Manchester United become a team of such curdled, frustrated talents?'

Manchester United's Andreas Pereira, Paul Pogba, Ashley Young and referee Georgi Kabakov look on
Manchester United's Andreas Pereira, Paul Pogba, Ashley Young and referee Georgi Kabakov look on
Defeat: United boss Jose Mourinho shows the strain in Valencia. Photo: AP

Jonathan Liew

Do you remember that bit they used to do during 'The X Factor' final, when they invited back all the worst rejected auditionees from earlier in the series, and got them to sing a discordant, hilariously inept medley?

Well, Manchester United were a little like that here: a cobbled-together side putting together a cobbled-together performance that skirted the boundary between entertainment and public humiliation.

For United's fans, meanwhile, an unwelcome trip through a hall of ghosts.

A bleak reminder, albeit in a largely academic game, of the many mis-steps and missed opportunities that have brought them to this point: sixth in the Premier League, formless and directionless, a medley of variously talented individuals who once, not so long ago, could have been something.

It was a weakened United - of their line-up, only Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku had started at least half of their Premier League games this season - but on paper at least, it wasn't a weak one.

It boasted a full set of 11 internationals, 591 caps, 245 Champions League appearances, and pretty much every major trophy in the game: World Cups, Premier Leagues, a Champions League, a Copa Libertadores.

It was a reminder that when Jose Mourinho complains at the paucity of resources at his disposal, this £380 million assembly is his idea of a second string.


Just as relevant, though, was the fact that these players had been signed by four different managers, to fit four different styles of play, and pretty much the only thing they had in common was their eye-watering price tag. It showed, too: this was a performance of almost jazz-inspired incoherence, as the various ghosts of United's recent eras tried gamely and vainly to get a tune going.

At times, you could even identify the constituent parts. There was a snatch of Van Gaal-era United in the long, somnolent periods of tepid reflection. A bouquet of Moyes in the leaden passing and occasional defensive calamity. A pinch of early Mourinho in the rugged physicality and the almost painful lack of ambition. Even a little Ferguson tribute in Marcus Rashford's late goal and the grizzled injury-time rearguard.

It was just a shame that by that point, Valencia - a team far better than their 15th position in La Liga would suggest - had out-passed and out-thought them, swollen with the righteous rage of Marouane Fellaini's handball goal against Young Boys a fortnight ago that had eliminated them and put United through.

But to a large degree United were the writers of their own painful dirge, a team deprived of their cohesion by a manager who repeatedly eschews continuity in favour of the 'punishment dropping'.

Nothing exemplified this better than Phil Jones's own goal early in the second half: a breakdown in communication with Sergio Romero that you could scarcely have choreographed more calamitously.

The injury-plagued Jones is, alas, a defender beginning to look increasingly out of step with every passing season, as people cotton on to his habit of pointing and shouting at his team-mates to cover a space that very often, he should have been covering himself.

The undercooked Marcos Rojo, a World Cup finalist in his better days, looked haunted and banal, and was put out of his misery at half-time.

Lukaku, with his slaloming runs and muscular grapples, looked every inch the elite world-class striker, unless you also chose to look at the ball.

And the number of times a United player simply let a Valencia opponent run straight past them will have infuriated Mourinho, who will have underlined the golden opportunity to win the game and top the group.

There were bright spots, too: Juan Mata, all confidence tricks and misdirection, like a cheeky uncle who wraps a pound coin in your palm and then pulls it out from behind your ear.

Fred had a decent game in midfield. Eric Bailly remains a player of exceptional promise. And at the age of 31, Fellaini remains devastatingly effective, having finally worked out what he can do and more importantly what he can't.

But for the most part, a team of lavish experience and unrivalled pedigree ended up looking like a sort of acrid tribute act to their former selves. What's happened here?

How did United become a team of such curdled, frustrated talents?

How are so many of these players still at the club? Why haven't they improved? And why, in the face of all the evidence, did Mourinho not take the opportunity to throw in a couple more young players in a more low-pressure environment?

To answer that question - a compound failure of recruitment, coaching, strategy and tactics - would require a whole new article. But there was a certain irony in the fact that having lost this evening, United trooped off the pitch to discover that Juventus had also lost their final group game to Young Boys.

A United win would have seen them top the group and avoid most of the strongest teams in the round of 16. Instead, you suspect they may be about to get what they deserve.

Independent News Service

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