Manchester United and their mistakes

I want to start off by saying that Brighton and Hove Albion deserve all the credit in the world. After a battering against Watford last weekend, they were probably expecting another dreadful result against one of the Goliaths of the Premier League. The Seagulls came charging out of the gates and played with their hearts on their sleeves to prove everyone wrong. The 3-2 score line does not even come close to recognizing how lopsided of a Sunday Affair this was.  José Mourinho may not have much time left as the manager of the Red Devils.

This eerily reminds me of the Titanic. A ridiculously expensive project – with around half a billion pounds spent in the transfer market – that will inevitably hit an immoveable object and sink. Why you might ask? Because nobody said otherwise. After a couple of seasons of build-up under “The Special One,” the plan for this season would should have been making a genuine run for the title. Instead, Brighton may be the damn iceberg that will sink the venture. Like a floating hunk of ice and snow, there is more than meets the eye with Brighton. They delivered a masterclass of a performance in their first 90 minutes at home.

They made plenty of mistakes. Jose Mourinho admitted to this in a post-match interview where he did not throw individual players under the bus. He was right. But this was just the second game of the season as the team is still in the midst of finding their feet after a shortened summer. United can still make it to the Champions League next season – should they limit their mistakes. They can also make a quarter-final run and beyond should everything go according to plan. But when has that ever been the case? Everyone in this squad will make mistakes. After all, they are human beings; as are we. We too will make mistakes. It is just human nature.  

Last season, United finished a distant second behind their noisy neighbors. They made the top four with relative ease because they made few mistakes. The Red Devils were clinical finishers, finishing behind only Manchester City in converting their shots on target. Mourinho’s side were also one of the best defensive teams in the league by conceding the second least amount of goals (again, with City being the only team better than them). Their defensive dexterity was also backed up by the fact that United saved the highest percentage of shots of target at 81% (bear in mind that this is a stat line that only been tracked in the Premier League for less than a decade. A small sample size but proof that the eye test is not always kind to them). Be it an exceptional save from David De Gea or the likes of Phil Jones putting their body on the line; last season should have been proof that Mourinho’s problems were not in the defensive third. Logic alone would suggest that this trophy less barren spell was foreseeable. Ferguson lead United to 13 league titles in his 26-and-a-half years. Clearly this was going to be an unsustainable home. Time and again we have seen sports dynasty’s fall. So why did we not see this coming?

The opening game against Leicester City should not have flared the alarm bells. A lot of what happened in United’s first outing of the 2018-19 season followed the trajectory that dictated much of last season. Manchester United grabbed an early goal by pressuring the opposition in the final third. Paul Pogba sealed the deal with a third-minute penalty. And in similar fashion to the past season, United were true to themselves as they sat back after attaining the early lead. At home. They were outshot 13 to 8 by a visiting side that had lost their best player in Riyad Mahrez. Again, at home. Seeing a league average team having a controlling performance in Old Trafford is never a good side but, United did win 2-1.  

After the second game, panic buttons should have been on an overload in Salford. Brighton scored on each and every shot they had on target. David De Gea was dragged down to ground level after a stat came out that Spanish No. 1 had conceded 10 out of from his last 14 shots faced for club and country. Wow. He is touted as one of the best goalkeepers in the world but then again, this is startling. United like to soak up pressure and let other teams take more shots than them. This backfired in the most epic proportions as United defended like schoolboys. They only managed to squeeze out seven attempts after Brighton took the lead and effectively the game. United would be dead last if this seasons’ average shots per game (8.5) was compared to the field from last season. And it’s not like Brighton and Leicester are stellar defensive sides. Both teams ranked in the top half in the league in terms of shots allowed. This is only two games, but this really feels like this is just the opening act for things to come.  

Mourinho may have just taken a page out of his archrivals – Arsène Wenger – book. Aside from a double substitution to bring Rashford and Lingard on the field, the Setúbal native employed a Laissez-Faire approach to the game. There was no cohesion amongst the attacking players. At least during the “Wenger Out” phases of Arsène’s tenure, the likes of Özil would grace the field to make the now rare creative play. And if that did not happen, Arsenal would at least attempt to carry out an aggressive high press. Most top teams in the modern game use this as their first line of defense. This lead to forcing their opposition into sloppy possession and turnovers which will lead to goal-scoring opportunities. Winning the ball back the final third is an undervalued part of the game. There’s less distance between an attacking player and the goal. Let’s not forget that the opposition defence is also unsettled and out of shape. Easy chances with attacking being the best form of defence; that is where the game has transitioned to. Dominating possession and boring the other team into conceding goals no longer works.

United tried to do exactly that. They dominated the ball with 67% possession. To their credit, they won back the ball on numerous occasions though much of that occurred in their own half. Brighton are a compact team that held their shape well. Taking the ball past an entire opposition 11 is no easy feat.

Manchester United are the empty vessel that makes the most noise in the transfer window. Linked with everyone under the sun, their only significant signing was Fred. Regardless of Mourinho’s statements where he publically demanded that his side add players to his squad, this still one of the most talented squads in the world. But most of that is in the attacking department. This is the most frustrating part of the Mourinho regime. The smart, most obvious strategy, would be for United to open up the game and plan on outscoring their opposition. Football is a random but more often than not, the better team wins in a high scoring affair. But rather than stack the odds in their favor, Mourinho has decided to take the conservative route. It can work though it all appears to hinge on David de Gea’s otherworldly ability to shot block. In recent weeks and months, he has not been on top form. And well – the results speak for themselves.

Based on the conversation in recent weeks, the United board may have come to a consensus that “The Special One” is simply not the right man for the job. Ed Woodward has supposedly vetoed many of the deals that Mourinho would have like to seen over the summer. It is a sign that the Manchester hierarchy do not see the Portuguese manager being at the club in the long run. Or, they believe that Jose is incapable of thinking beyond the here and now and transitioning away from a short-term view is in the club best interest. Word around the street is that United are in planning to hire their first ever Director of Football – a middle man between manager and the board who can implement a lasting philosophy. All of this would make perfect sense had they not handed Mourinho a contract extension at the beginning of the calendar year.

The deal was announced on January 25th amidst rumors that he would take the lucrative Paris Saint-Germain job. At that point in time, United were in second place. Ordinarily, that would have been a decent landing point had they not been miles behind City and were playing like a mid-table side. Everything out the higher-ups at United suggest that they are actively campaigning for a patience and a long-term approach. And yet, they are choosing to ignore the glaring warning signs that could spell disaster for the club as they look to highlight the short-term results. Mourinho said it best, “We made mistakes.”     

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