There’s usually no appetite or patience for this sort of question at the best of times, but the collective mentality of Manchester United players in certain situations remains a puzzle which still eludes José Mourinho.
United are still a mentally fragile team despite their cautious progress, and when things don’t quite come off in the first 10-15 minutes, doubt seeps in and spreads like wildfire throughout the outfield. David de Gea must watch it unfold in front of him with dread/relish. Engulfed in uncertainty, any sense of shape and passing ability nosedives. Opposition teams also recognise this, and then proceed to double down on their efforts which are often rewarded. Meanwhile, time drains away for United while players painfully toil almost accepting their fate.
United supporters have seen this many, many times in the last five years, well before Mourinho was eventually appointed, and it remains the manager’s greatest challenge to fix. However, familiar failings do not excuse elimination by Sevilla over two legs. Some might wonder what the point was of winning the Europa League in such emotional circumstances for such meek surrender. United not only have themselves to blame being dumped out before the quarter-finals – their downfall was entirely of their own making. Sevilla’s manager, Vincenzo Montella, was keen to focus on praise for his side’s confident away performance, but the drab goalless draw in Spain paved the way. Sevilla were buoyant; United wilted. Obvious, in hindsight.
Mourinho appeared to concentrate energies on Chelsea in the week of the first leg, similarly Liverpool prior to the reverse fixture at home. United were equally flat against Crystal Palace in between but salvaged a dramatic victory for a change. Mourinho gambled on nicking something away in the first leg – a dicey approach not exclusive to him away in Europe – but underestimated the psychological hurdle it might present at home. United would almost have been better off losing the first leg 1-0 with 90 minutes to put it right instead of 15, let alone getting an away goal. Frustrations with being pragmatic felt more acute here than in any of the much-maligned top six league games, such was the missed opportunity of a free hit in a glitzy competition to provide cheer. Instead, fans were treated to a two-part special of a shitshow they’ve watched before.
Perhaps Mourinho, on balance, would still have prioritised United’s league fixtures around the tie, more likely he would have tinkered less after Liverpool – particularly the baffling decision to deploy Marcus Rashford on the right. Last season United needed the cups to rescue their state in the league, this season they are better placed for a respectable finish indicative of their current status. Nevertheless, the drop-off from players going through the motions was stark on the back of spirited displays against Liverpool and Palace.
"Some players were hiding."— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 13, 2018
"We expected better from ourselves, we didn't show the quality we have."
Romelu Lukaku speaks honestly to @DesKellyBTS after Man Utd's Champions League exit. pic.twitter.com/FRGLjzPZAf
Romelu Lukaku candidly made the point and, not by coincidence, was the only player to come out of the game with any semblance of credit. Lukaku’s head or endeavour never dropped despite his colleague’s best efforts to collapse around him – mentally exactly the type of player United need more of. Alexis Sánchez is supposed to be another but is in such ghastly form it’s hard to tell if he’s impervious to United’s collective. Paul Pogba’s brief appearance, again, showed why he’s been absent recently. Pogba possibly should have replaced Sánchez when he came on where he’d have less responsibility.
With the mood after Liverpool mere days ago now long forgotten, the tediously impatient swing of absolutes has snapped back against Mourinho. Finishing only behind Manchester City would represent significant progress unless your expectations of United this season were too lofty regardless of what they have spent. Clearly United should be better than they are, equally Mourinho feels like he’s been Manchester United manager for a decade rather than still in his second season.
Motivating the players to maintain their position in the league will be more important, if less fun, than the remaining cup – therefore, even though it’s not another celebrated trophy, that’s what Mourinho will probably prioritise. It wasn’t good enough for Louis van Gaal… imagine how awkward finishing fifth and going up to collect the FA Cup would be in Mourinho’s second season.