Man United engineer the most pathetic of defeats…

It is impossible to exaggerate just what a ludicrous and embarrassing mess Jose Mourinho and thus Manchester United have made of an unarguably winnable Champions League tie. To put it simply, they absolutely fucked it. And no, I am not softening that sentence with asterisks. They fucked it.
They went to Spain with all the verve and swagger of a 43-year-old virgin (and not one of those asexual types who is simply not interested) and ended the game with the kind of result that juddered to a halt just short of disaster. We expected rather better from this supposedly excellent United side who have – so we have been repeatedly told – simply dropped unlucky to be supposedly excellent in the same era as a truly wonderful City team, but a uber-cautious and thus uber-dull 0-0 could just about be packaged as success.
Since that not-quite-disastrous 0-0, United have gloriously triumphed over Chelsea and Liverpool, with Mourinho clearly taking huge amounts of pleasure in outwitting Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp, two coaches oft-cited as being more tactically sharp than the now-anachronistic Mourinho. This was Jose in his element, literally and symbolically pointing his finger to his chest as if to say ‘I am still the don’. And there was the added bonus of a comeback win at Crystal Palace achieved through bold changes and brave decision-making. United are an emphatic second and flying.
Meanwhile in Spain, Sevilla were sandwiching two narrow victories between a thwacking by Atletico Madrid and a limp defeat to Valencia. They are still fifth but as close to Real Sociedad in 14th as Valencia in fourth; they have the  ‘goals against’ record of a team keeping their heads just above the relegation water.
So when the latter, stuttering, porous team came to Manchester – where Mourinho’s United have not lost to anybody but City, remember – what kind of manager approaches the match like they are playing peak Real Madrid? The kind of manager who could be handed the finest, fastest bike in the Tour de France and then stand on the starting line with stabilisers, that’s who. The kind of manager who has far better players than the opposition and yet somehow manages to hobble them. The kind of manager whose methods and approach make him a near-parody.
Should he take all the blame? Of course not, but those United players had clearly been instructed to be cautious, to pass the ball sideways and then to loft the ball long. The line-up hinted at such tactics, with Marouane Fellaini bafflingly given his first start since November in a must-win last-16 Champions League tie. That decision is almost negligent and certainly inexplicable. As was the decision to move Marcus Rashford from the position in which he devastated Liverpool on Saturday. It was an absurd and unnecessary change and smacked of Mourinho over-thinking a tie that really should have begun with just one thought: We are better than them.
Instead, in his pre-game interview, Mourinho talked about being “sure Sevilla will be alive and in the tie until the end”, and that revealed rather too much about his unnecessarily subservient approach. This was not to be the dominant performance of superior players but a self-inflicted bloody battle until the death; Mourinho made his players nervous and cautious when they should have strode onto the pitch with an arrogant strut. He destroyed momentum just as he destroyed it at Anfield in October.
“Hopefully our people will give us a little bit of a push,” he continued, returning to a familiar theme that United’s fans are somehow as responsible for results as him and his players. Within 20 minutes ‘our people’ were quiet, anxious and restless, having watched a United side needlessly and repetitively either give the ball away or pump it forward with little finesse. The midfield had no control, the forwards posed no danger and the nervous defence would have been destroyed by a better side than Seville long before they finally made the breakthrough.
They looked awful. They looked ragged. They looked like a team who had been unduly shackled and worried by their own manager. This was the most pathetic of Champions League exits with literally no urgency being shown over 160 minutes of football. This is not about City having more money to spend on full-backs, Mourinho inheriting a side lacking ‘winners’ or ‘characters’, or this United side being in transition; this is about an approach bordering on negligent. This is about absolutely fucking it.
Sarah Winterburn
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