Waking up to Liverpool away rarely feels fine – there’s an argument to sack it off entirely for the effort – and Manchester United played like they were suffering from an unnecessary hangover away against Benfica on Wednesday night. The draw at Anfield was acceptable in isolation but felt a bum note in context of the early season and their respective starts. United were deemed not able to go after Liverpool, not required to for the risk, or a mixture of both. An uninspiring if familiar group stage away win in Europe simultaneously compounded the recent malaise and strengthened the manager’s cause. Being blasé about nine points and two away wins from three opening Champions League games happened rather quickly, even with an admittedly kind group. Moscow will be a point of reference rather than the motions passed in Portugal, but an equally valuable win.
Far from a disastrous week, onwards to Huddersfield away at the weekend, José Mourinho decided to make it all about him. The manager may be mid-contract renegotiation, and United do currently top the injury league table, but Mourinho wanted the spotlight twice. Any rivals snared along the way the merrier. Oh, Conte. Anyway, bleating about other manager’s bleating about their injuries then immediately bleating about his team’s injuries as a footnote is vintage Mourinho. Brazenly annoying in its supposed unawareness with a kernel of truth delivered with indifference. It’s worth noting Huddersfield have as many players crocked if that’s not rich enough for you.
Anyway. When Mourinho is making it all about him it is often prudent to look beyond the sauce and check what he’s hiding. Injuries in central midfield are definitely hampering United’s options but seeing Nemanja Matić frustrated into trying to score himself from range was indicative of two fitful displays. Similarly, David de Gea being the only remarkable positive from a game is a darkness United are supposed to be shedding. Mourinho probably doesn’t mind the points gained but something is up aside from defending defending.
United have done well to cope without Paul Pogba but it is starting to bite now. Chosen chief creative, Henrikh Mkhitarayn, afforded a crucial position in the side tasked with knitting the team together in Pogba’s absence, has fallen off a cliff in recent performances. I wrote before Anfield that it was a big compliment from Mourinho to be trusted with the attacking focal point but Mkhitarayn has buckled under the load. Other forwards have suffered too but come away with more credit in comparison. It will be interesting to see whether Mourinho gives Mkhitarayn another chance on Saturday in the league – the weekend before Tottenham, then an opportunity for eventually resting his favourites in the league cup. United’s calendar is agreeable once more with another home game in the reverse against Benfica leaving five days grace until Chelsea away.
Mourinho doesn’t have the players available he would ideally like, nevertheless United do have sympathetic logistics in which to muster more than they did at Anfield – not that they now leave themselves with much choice. Tottenham raised an eyebrow in Madrid this week and look a real test early doors against a team experiencing a certain amount of chop. Mourinho will want to maintain a three-point cushion going into the Spurs game not to add any further pressure or give any further encouragement. Distracting the microscope over his lack of centre-back partnership, temporary left-backs, stretched midfield and now flat forwards stands to reason. United will hope to make best use of the time bought before Tottenham and Chelsea, otherwise it’s coming back with interest regardless of injuries.