It felt like an awkward parents’ evening where the mother and father were attempting to absolve their child of any blame for their flagging grades. Manchester United were chasing an equaliser against Everton, and Paul Pogba had just hit the crossbar with a second-half header.
“Very unlucky,” was the assessment from Robbie Savage of a shot that was essentially off-target. “They must be feeling the gods are not with them,” added Ian Darke, discussing an attempt that was not good enough to breach Joel Robles’ goal.
The returning Zlatan Ibrahimovic eventually salvaged a point for United, rescuing little more than an unbeaten run which loses its meaning with each passing under-performance and subsequent stalemate. The report card for their three last home games reads ‘DDD’, and the gap to the top of the class is increasing. For any other student, this would be a failure.
Much of the rest of the 1-1 draw with Everton followed a similar pattern. When Ibrahimovic’s second-half header was disallowed for offside, the aforementioned two pundits, along with Glenn Hoddle, analysed and examined the decision at length, painstakingly presenting their findings at the end. Their eventual conclusion? United had been robbed.
If only they had spent less time pondering a single decision made in a split second by a linesman, and more time discussing the tactics of a man employed to end a period of frustration and disappointment. For it is Jose Mourinho, not any official, whose mistakes are becoming increasingly more frequent.
Who could have foreseen a midfield of Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera lacking the necessary drive to counter Everton’s balanced, energetic trio? Who watched the draw with West Brom and decided that, of the four disappointing forwards, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial, not Jesse Lingard or Marcus Rashford, should lose their place? When Herrera starts the second half at left-back before quickly switching over to the right flank, who is to blame?
In a week where Mourinho bemoaned his lack of options, he left on the bench the world’s most expensive player ever, a striker signed for £36.7million, and a player he signed himself for £26.3m. Oh, and a £30m left-back he publicly condemned at the start of the week, whose shot earned the penalty which kept intact his one saving grace.
It is now 20 Premier League games unbeaten for Mourinho’s side, of which half have been draws. But even as the Portuguese placed the last of his eggs in a basket marked ‘Europa League’, he simply could not resist playing his old tricks.
“With the video assistant replay we win the game 2-1, because it was not offside,” he said after the game, knowing it is a tale of misfortune that many will be happy to indulge.
But it is telling that his disciples are dwindling, even if ever so slightly. Mourinho has overseen improvement during his nascent reign, as the sterile domination of Louis van Gaal’s spell is becoming a distant nightmare with each fixture. But the exasperation that characterised United under the Dutchman is being replicated under his successor, albeit in a different way. Old Trafford has not witnessed a home Premier League win since February 11, and for that, Mourinho is more culpable than any player.
Manchester City now sit four points ahead in the race to qualify for the Champions League; Arsenal are only three points behind, and face a West Ham in panic mode. Mourinho was handed just one objective in his first season: ensure United’s return to Europe’s elite competition. That he could still complete that mission via alternate means should not absolve him of any blame for what is a failed Premier League campaign. The Europa League now represents United’s clearest path to the Promised Land, but that they are now reliant on beating Anderlecht and the rest of the continent’s never-close-to-nearly men should be no consolation.
“He’s been a bit unlucky actually because there are home games this season they’ve been absolutely brilliant in but have drawn them,” said Sir Alex Ferguson in March, but the legendary Scot must surely know the truth. United, despite an investment of over £145m, have not even come close to “absolutely brilliant” all season. Van Gaal and Moyes lowered the bar, but not that far. And yet Mourinho is still struggling to clear it.
That is not to mention the fact that describing this United side and its manager as “unlucky” is to completely miss the point. Great teams need not rely on luck; they get the job done regardless.
If United do qualify for the Champions League, it will be through wooing its ugly cousin, disregarded by Mourinho earlier in the season. That should not mask the fact that Europa League success, if it arrives, was only possible because of Premier League failure. Mourinho has got his sums all wrong, and yet he could still stumble upon the right answer in his first season.