“This is not a competition that Manchester United wants. It is not a competition I want, it is not a competition the players want.”
Jose Mourinho made little effort to disguise his true feelings. The Portuguese attempted to act as the diplomat – “We have to look to the competition with respect. I think we want to do well in the competition” – but the mask had slipped. Manchester United are in the Europa League; Mourinho is in the Europa League. They do not belong here.
That is not to say that they belong among the elite in the big brother of European competition, their former home, the Champions League. On the basis of their 1-0 defeat to Feyenoord on Thursday, this Manchester United side would barely deserve a place in the Intertoto Cup.
Mourinho, to his credit, made no real mistake with the starting line-up. He fielded a strong side, one more than capable of dispatching the current Eredivisie leaders, but also ensured to make wholesale changes after a lacklustre Manchester derby defeat. Eight players were handed opportunities to impress; only David de Gea, Eric Bailly and Paul Pogba retained their places.
Of that trio, the former two did little wrong. De Gea can hardly be blamed for Tonny Vilhena’s winner, courtesy of a lightning-quick counter-attack down the abysmal Marcos Rojo’s left flank. Bailly returned to his imperious best, albeit with a customary mistake or two. But Pogba, when finally given the opportunity to revel in his supposed favoured position, was the biggest disappointment of the night. Mourinho afforded him space and licence to roam in a midfield three, but the world’s most expensive player managed to somehow look out of his depth.
Pogba was not alone. United were insipid, laboured and tiresome – words associated with Louis van Gaal’s iteration, not Jose Mourinho’s. One would have been forgiven for thinking this was a testimonial for their former manager, staged in his homeland.
Some managed to take their chance. Ander Herrera was a force of nature at times in midfield. One prominent Manchester-based outlet reported the following at half-time in their live coverage: ‘It has been physical and United have suffered, most particularly the small lightweights like Mata and Herrera.’ But it was Herrera who stood tall in a combative game. The Spaniard made five tackles all game, the joint-highest of the game alongside Feyenoord’s brute of a centre-half, Eric Botteghin. Many wilted in the pressure cooker of an intense clash, but not the 27-year-old.
Nor too Morgan Schneiderlin, his midfield partner. The Frenchman made three tackles and four interceptions, while he did not misplace a single pass in the first half. He registered the highest passing accuracy of any starting player (91.5%) by the full-time whistle. Herrera was only narrowly behind in that regard (91%), and the Spaniard completed the most passes of any player (78).
But, the two outcasts aside, no player took their chance to stake a claim for a starting place against Watford. Matteo Darmian was positive, but this was not enough to displace Antonio Valencia. Chris Smalling was solid, but Daley Blind will not be quaking in his boots. As for the front three of Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford, Mourinho’s triple substitution just after the hour mark said it all. United had created two chances before half-time – the fewest they have created in a first half all season. Both came courtesy of Darmian. There was no verve, no skill, no link-up play and nothing to trouble the home side. It was no different to the very worst performances under Van Gaal.
Rome was not built in a day, of course. Jesus turned water into wine in a matter of seconds, but Jose cannot be expected to turn sh*te into supremacy in an instant. Two months into a three-year deal, the task that lies ahead of the Portuguese is now clear.
The Europa League may not matter to him as a competition, but the ineptitude of his side’s performance mattered when he stormed off at half-time, when he emerged long before his players for the second half, and on the numerous occasions where he almost lost his temper at another misplaced pass or loss of possession. He publicly blamed a refereeing mistake in the build-up to Feyenoord’s goal; privately, he will berate his player and bemoan the fact they were so poor.
This past week has set Mourinho back in his quest to build a dynasty at Old Trafford, but it has not derailed plans completely.
It will however rankle with him that his arch-nemesis has already enacted a dramatic transformation across Manchester within the same time period, but Pep Guardiola did have a better base to work with at Manchester City. Van Gaal left Mourinho a pile of rubble; it is unfathomable to expect a skyscraper to be built so soon, even with the considerable financial backing he has received.
Yet that is not an excuse for performances as poor as Thursday’s. The Europa League may not be a competition Manchester United, Jose Mourinho and his players want but, on this basis, it isn’t even one they deserve.