There is a story in the Bible of a man called Paul, who then went by the name Saul, on a journey to arrest any who followed the teachings of Jesus. While travelling, a bright light shone on Saul questioning his motives and asking him to go to Damascus where he would be told what to do. It is said that this experience changed Saul’s perspective and the entire direction of his life.
A conversion is needed in Manchester. While José Mourinho may be the man with whom a change is expected, there is an entire squad under his direct control who would equally benefit from a Road to Damascus type encounter. Mourinho might be the easy target, and perhaps it is time for his removal, but the performance levels in Manchester are far below what they should be for a Manchester United side. At half time against Valencia CF, Owen Hargreaves said that United’s performance had more energy than that against West Ham, but this was a backhanded compliment at best. On Tuesday night, the Manchester United players once again lacked intensity, drive and any type of attacking proficiency that is expected of top-level footballers.
The bus might have been late, but the team sheet which arrived on time brought in another waft of changes from the game against West Ham at the weekend. Gone was the back three and Mourinho reverted to his classic 4-3-3 with Eric Bailly making his return to the line-up, as did Alexis Sánchez. Once again, a lack of continuity in the United line-up was evident with Smalling and Bailly being the sixth different pairing that Mourinho has used in ten games this season. The inability of Mourinho to identify his best XI after two years is a damning indictment of the one-time ‘special one’ and his troubled reign in Manchester.
Alexis Sánchez was the first talking point of the game, with the Chilean returning to the line-up and taking position on the right-hand side rather than his customary left. This positional change could have been for two reasons; it could’ve been Mourinho saying that Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford would return to the berth they lost following the arrival of Sánchez, or more mundanely, it could have been merely to provide more cover for Antonio Valencia. As it turned out, Valencia did need Sánchez’s help.
The Ecuadorean had been poor against Wolves and again cut a sorrowful figure against Valencia CF. Father Time seems to have caught up with the player formerly heralded for his athleticism and ability to get up and down the pitch. Valencia’s positional play was poor as he struggled to get into position and block crosses from the left wing. He needed defensive cover from Eric Bailly as Valencia CF took advantage in the first half.
For the most part, Rashford and Sánchez struggled to get into the game. The pair spent much of the night dropping deep, fighting for second balls and struggling to spearhead attacks. The pair must look enviously at the attacking talent elsewhere in the Premier League and wonder how their stats would look in another team. From his role on the right, Sánchez provided a number of good crosses but appeared less disciplined that usual as he often drifted infield. To his credit though, Sánchez did seem more effective from the right than he has been cutting in from the left this season.
Valencia CF were disciplined in their approach at Old Trafford. One-time United targets Ezequiel Garay and Geoffrey Kondogbia excelled in their matchups. Garay was never threatened by Lukaku while Kondogbia and his partner Daniel Parejo were dominant in midfield. When United had the ball approaching Valencia CF’s half, Kondogbia and Parejo stayed narrow and blocked United’s passing lanes forcing United wide.
When discussing United’s recent travails, José Mourinho this week admitted: “We were not good enough to stop the counter-attack. We’re not very good in transition. We are not a team that is very good when we lose possession and the other team counter-attacks.”
United again looked vulnerable when they lost the ball and transitioned into a defensive mode. Valencia CF managed to find huge gaps in behind Nemanja Matić and Marouane Fellaini in the first half. United executed their traditional low block, not engaging nor pressuring the opposition until Valencia ventured into United’s half, leaving Valencia players relatively comfortable on the ball. Valencia attacked well but never landed the killer blow the home support feared all night.
The lack of a press highlighted United’s biggest failings against Valencia. There was a complete lack of intensity from the United players. A Sky Sports stat this week demonstrated that Manchester United players have attempted fewer sprints (58) than any other team in the league. This was 19 sprints fewer than the second worst team and 92 sprints less than Liverpool after only 7 Premier League games. Against Valencia, many players again appeared to be operating at a pedestrian pace.
Whether it is Mourinho, or a new manager, a tactical overhaul is needed in Manchester. Slow, pedestrian and defensive football is consigned to the history books. Fast, harrying football based on pressing, counter pressing and counter attacking is the way of the future. In that regard, United are lucky. The likes of Lukaku, Rashford and Sánchez are perfectly equipped to play in that type of a system.
In other ways, United might not be so lucky. It remains to be seen if the other change required in Manchester can be achieved quite so easily. Regardless of what the future holds, the Manchester United squad must rally and identify that their intensity and workload have been a problem. The Manchester United players that strolled around the pitch on Tuesday night cannot be accepted as the season progresses. This needs to change. They need enlightenment.
José Mourinho hasn’t helped, but the recent run of poor performances hasn’t been entirely his fault either. Once the United players can see that they need to right their own wrongs, there’s definitely hope.
And it’ll be their first steps towards redemption.