1103 GMT March 31, 2020
There’s the slight switch of formation, or the impactful half-time substitutions, or Marouane Fellaini’s enormous head, The Independent reported.
Against Brighton on Sunday he tried them all, and on reflection perhaps this was the thing most damning about Manchester United’s meek surrender: that as his team sunk in front of him, Mourinho was helpless to turn the tide.
United’s makeshift midfield trio of Paul Pogba and Fred either side of the deep-lying Andreas Pereira was disbanded at the break, after Fred had been culpable in the buildup to Brighton’s third goal; the front three were worse, where the rusty Romelu Lukaku was flanked by the ineffective Anthony Martial and the anonymous Juan Mata.
At half-time Mourinho brought on Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford for Pereira and Mata, and switched from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1. The new duo brought energy and enthusiasm but little invention and so, on the hour, on came the hair.
After failing with something resembling a more cultured approach, Fellaini’s presence as a battering ram did eventually earn an injury-time penalty, but by then the damage had already been done, and Mourinho had been powerless to stop it. Even his usual touchline antics seemed half-hearted, gravely muttering to his assistants, lightly lecturing an unmoved linesman, throwing up his arms as Mat Ryan ran down the clock. After the third goal he tried a clap of encouragement but couldn’t seem to find the words to go with it, and ended up staring across the pitch scratching his head.
At one moment in the second half the manager bellowed at Pogba to play quicker from the back and his captain replied with an exasperated gesture pointing to the lack of options ahead of him. This was one of those displays from Pogba where he did little obviously wrong but so rarely had the ball in a threatening area of the pitch, and when he did he was denied any space to exploit it.
Perhaps there are some generous caveats to the performance. Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic will eventually add steel to a papery midfield. Lukaku looks short of sharpness and had he scored his early one-on-one the complexion of the game would have changed. But even then United probably still would have lost, and had it not, a result wouldn’t have covered over the cracks.
Afterward Mourinho was asked what he would do to help eradicate the kind of individual mistakes which he blamed for the defeat. He had little answer, saying only that he would ask the players to train harder; once more he did not seem like a man with the ability to effect real change, and one assessment might be that the players making mistakes – Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Fred – were expensive signings he sanctioned.
The question over the coming weeks is whether these individual errors are just that, or are part of something more ingrained, the symptoms of a team lacking leadership and direction, of a group of players who coexist but don’t connect, whose plan A is sketchily drawn and whose plan B remains the enormous head of Marouane Fellaini.
Everyone is allowed a bad day, but the overriding sense at the Amex was that United’s problems are more deeply rooted, and that Mourinho does not seem to have a solution to solve them.