Where to even begin?
Before going into what Manchester United did or did not do against Sevilla in their disaster of a defeat on Tuesday night, it is important to revisit what José Mourinho said post-match.
In one of the more surprisingly unpleasant press conferences since he took over the reins as Manchester United manager, he expressed his unwillingness to discuss or dwell on the defeat. Then, the Portuguese quickly began to normalize what happened by citing past instances in which Manchester United got knocked-out at home by some of his sides in the last decade or so.
A fifteen-second rant showed what José Mourinho has always been as a football manager: a relentless winner—one who will do anything to avoid being portrayed as the opposite. A man who will spare nobody, and go to any length (even taking a swing at his own employers), if it means that he will take as little blame as possible. The unyielding mentality that has been his strength at the best of times, has also been his undoing when things did not go well—like on Tuesday.
Manchester United’s approach was cautious, and one might go as far as to say, criminally negative—there are no two ways about that. Numbers seldom lie. José Mourinho’s side only managed four shots on target in over 180 minutes of football against Montella’s Sevilla, who have conceded five goals on five separate occasions this season.
The Devils or the dogs?
What is baffling, however, is this underdog mentality. These days, any big occasion at Old Trafford, be it in the league or in Europe, involves Manchester United happily starring in the underdog role no matter what the quality of the opposition. And that despite the club’s size and stature.
Come to think of it, even in the successful run in Europe last year, as they lifted their first Europa League title, Manchester United did not handle any opponent in the knockout rounds with the conviction they should have. Again, that despite their being a club with the finances that would put most Champions League sides to shade.
There were no comprehensive victories—even at that level—barring the 4-0 aggregate win over two legs against St.Etienne in the Round of 32. In the final against Ajax, a bunch of inexperienced (yet talented) youngsters, Man United got the early break (through a deflection), but made little attempt to increase the lead until they scored the second off a set play.
It is understandably hard to argue with results, as Mourinho has lifted his fourth European trophy and Manchester United completed the lot. But Mourinho flies the flag for a counter-intuitive and measured approach to football that has always irked sections of United fans. Plus, his ways are a far cry from the identity that the club was built around for decades—one that they still want to associate with today.
José Mourinho: genius or madman?
But how long can Mourinho provide an environment that is not conducive to the amount of talent he has at his disposal; to get the best out of his attacking players, and to win games they should be perfectly able to? Can all of that be risked for the sake of his ideals and natural instincts?
One of the most successful managers in football since the turn of the millennium is José Mourinho. For him to lack confidence in the side that he has steadily assembled, against lesser outfits and in big career-defining moments, will be the one obvious red flag. Afterall, the Premier League is where managers are judged, contracts are signed and jobs are lost.
Until Mourinho is comfortable adapting his techniques to get the best out of his players, United will continue to miss the heights they can clearly reach. This is the glass ceiling that Mourinho needs to break during the remainder of his time at Old Trafford.