Manchester United missed the chance to progress into the last 16 of the Champions League as they lost 1-0 away to FC Basel. Here are five things we learned from the game at St Jakob-Park as the Red Devils left themselves needing something from their final group match in order to qualify from Group A.
United get worse after half time…again
In two of United’s last three league away games, against Liverpool and Chelsea, they have gone in at half time with the score at 0-0 having put in a reasonable first half performance to build on.
In the second half of both those matches, the Red Devils faded as an attacking force as their hosts subjected them to one way-traffic throughout the second period.
The same thing happened here as Basel stormed forward after the break, hitting the post and forcing Sergio Romero into a series of diving saves before Michael Lang tapped in the winner at the back post two minutes from time.
Whether the cause is half time team talks, a simple case of fatigue or something else, United’s recent second half away performances should be of real concern to José Mourinho.
Mourinho is still searching for a European away formula
United have only won six of their last 22 away matches in Europe, dating all the way back to Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season in charge.
Their current approach seems to be to try and frustrate home sides with a patient passing approach but in the second half here and against Benfica on their last European excursion, cutting edge has been sorely lacking.
United failed to take their chances while they were on top in the first half and were powerless to stem the tide when Basel built up a head of steam and roused their typically vociferous home support in the second half.
Mourinho has attempted to make United harder to beat on their travels in Europe but he is still searching for the right balance and that should worry United fans as tougher trips would inevitably lie in wait in the knockout rounds.
Lukaku needs to start taking his chances
The return of Zlatan Ibrahimović has intensified the pressure on Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian had gone seven games without a goal in all competitions before he added the gloss to United’s 4-0 win against Newcastle on Saturday.
Of his last five goals, three were the fourth in a four-goal win, which only serves to increase the scrutiny on a player who already has a reputation for struggling to make an impact in tight games but piles in once the game is secure.
Here, he went through on goal midway through the first half but took too many touches and his rushed left-footed shot was easily saved by Tomas Vaclik.
Ibrahimović lacks Lukaku’s mobility but is seldom as profligate as the former Everton man. If Lukaku continues to squander chances in tightly poised matches – his miss against Liverpool also springs to mind – his status as ‘untouchable’ in Mourinho’s eleven will be under threat.
Mourinho’s substitutions fail to turn the side
José Mourinho was visibly irate on the touchline minutes into the second half when it first became clear that United were unable to cope with a reinvigorated Basel and turned to his bench to swing the game back his way.
On came Ibrahimović, Nemanja Matić and Marcus Rashford but to no avail as, like in the aforementioned trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge, the dye was cast as United remained powerless to stifle their hosts.
United now had three midfielders who could all play in the holding role and three strikers on the pitch at the same time, but simultaneously failed to protect the back four or worry Basel on the counter attack.
Mourinho has a well-earned reputation as a manager who can change games with his substitutions but has proved, on more than one occasion this season, unable to alter the course of games from the bench.
Marcos Rojo can become first choice again straight away
Amidst all the fuss surrounding Ibrahimović’s return, it has been largely forgotten that Rojo has also come back from a similar injury suffered in the same game, last season’s Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht.
The Argentine was awarded his first start since that absence with a knee injury, looking sharp throughout and he denied Dimitri Oberlin with a fantastic last-ditch block on 72 minutes.
A Rojo without form and confidence can be shambolic – as seen in last season’s League Cup final - but he staked a strong claim to partner Eric Bailly at the heart of the United defence in the absence of the injured Phil Jones.
That is one of the only positive here for Mourinho, given the poor form of both summer signing Victor Lindelöf and Chris Smalling, who was dropped by England for recent international friendlies.