Jonathan Liew: 'Jose Mourinho must stop throwing players under the tram, or he could be next'
It was a disgruntled Jose Mourinho who stepped into the Mestalla press room for his post-match debrief shortly after 11pm on Wednesday night. Although these days, to describe Mourinho as "disgruntled" is to stray dangerously close to tautology. He seems to carry an inexhaustible reservoir of discontent with him wherever he goes; even his celebrations now involve the demolition of large touchline objects.
As his side gag and splutter their way through the season, Mourinho increasingly resembles what he is: a middle-aged man who has been eating off the room service menu for the last two-and-a-half years.
His United team had just lost 2-1 to Valencia, and frankly they were fortunate to get that close. Not that it was his fault, of course, as he valiantly boasted of his second-half substitutions almost turning the game. No, once more he had been failed, betrayed, forsaken.
"It was a good match to play," he protested. "A match without any kind of pressure, a competition that everybody likes to play. And in the end, my team improved when I made the changes I didn't want to make."
You didn't need to be one of Mourinho's Einsteins to work out who he was talking about. Marcos Rojo, Fred and Romelu Lukaku were the three men he replaced, although he later confirmed Rojo was carrying an injury when he was taken off at half-time. But really, Mourinho was throwing his whole team under the tram here: lamenting the collective inertia that had allowed Valencia to score two cheap goals and potentially a good deal more.
On the face of things, he was right. United's ball retention was a shambles. The defending for Valencia's first goal, in which six United players circled Carlos Soler but none got within 10 yards of him, was unspeakably poor. The effort was some way below 100 pc.
"We were too passive in the first half," Mourinho said. "In the second half, I was pretty sure - after speaking at half-time - that things would be different. But we started with an own goal that gave Valencia a better position."
That own goal was scored by Phil Jones, who seemed to bear the brunt of the criticism from United fans after the game. But consider his situation. Since returning from injury at the end of September, he's been shuffled in and out more often than the five of spades. His last 10 games, in sequence, read as follows: dropped, on the bench, dropped, on the bench, on the bench, starting, starting, dropped, starting, starting. This isn't some flighty winger or back-up striker, but a central defender who at 26 should theoretically be at his peak. How is he supposed to develop rhythm and match fitness if he can't even get three games in a row?
And that was the story of United from back to front, as players who hadn't enjoyed regular football looked - surprise! - like they hadn't played regular football. Juan Mata hasn't had three consecutive starts since October. Marouane Fellaini hasn't since the end of the 2016/'17 season. Rotation is a necessary part of the game, and we can argue over whether those players really merit 40 or 50 games a season. But don't be surprised when they can't reach the level Mourinho demands of them from a standing start.
Partly, of course, the problem is that United have too many players. You wouldn't think it to listen to Mourinho bemoaning the lack of transfer activity earlier this season, but the squad seems to have a remarkable amount of ballast to it.
Taking the Premier League and Champions League only, Chelsea have started 17 different players this season, Liverpool and Arsenal 20, Manchester City 21, Tottenham 23. United have started 25, and if quantity hasn't exactly translated to quality, it's partly a function of a squad crying out for some purgative spring cleaning.
United's recruitment under Ed Woodward has rightly come under the microscope, but almost as damaging has been the failure to shift players who are either past their best, a poor fit or simply not up to scratch. There are at least half a dozen players who have been tacitly on the market for a year or more.
The likes of Rojo, Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling and Ander Herrera will all be allowed to go for the right price. Yet through a lack of opportunity, a lack of effort or a lack of nous, only Daley Blind, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Adnan Januzaj and Wayne Rooney (plus the retiring Michael Carrick and the swapped Henrikh Mkhitaryan) have been shifted in the last three windows.
The cause: the unintelligible transfer splurge of the post-Ferguson years, when lavish fees and wages were laid out for often average players. The result: a bloated, underperforming squad where standards have been inexcusably allowed to slip. Where responsibility has been so thoroughly diluted that many have forgotten what it feels like.
"I normally like to work with 20 players plus the three goalkeepers, which is what I have done for 15 years," Mourinho said on his first pre-season tour in 2016, when he was fresh in the job. Like many of his best-laid plans, that has fallen by the wayside.
Back in Valencia, they were voting with their feet. A group of ten United fans had flown all the way from Ireland to Valencia to watch the game. By the 70th minute, seven of them had left to go and explore the city.
The point is that the United faithful are beginning to tire of this endless cycle of burp and bust, of blame and claim, of one step forward and two steps back.
They've long since stopped caring whose fault it is. They just want a team they can be proud of again. Liverpool on Sunday offers a perfect opportunity for them to start feeling the pride again because Mourinho is running out of trams to throw the players under. (© Independent News Service)