At Old Trafford on Sunday, it wasn’t just Manchester United’s players who were outclassed by their opponents. It was their manager too.
If the Manchester Derby was anything to go by, José Mourinho must have very little faith in his team. On his instructions, United turned in a performance owing as much to Martin O’Neill’s Ireland or Dave Bassett’s Wimbledon as to any other footballing school. Time after time, the men in red punted the ball aimlessly upfield in the vague direction of Romelu Lukaku, afraid to do anything other than bash it long and hope for an error from their counterparts.
They looked like nothing more than a glossier, more expensive and far less intimidating reboot of the Crazy Gang.
Get the ball as far away from our goal as possible, was the logic. If we don’t have it, we can’t f*ck it up. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the men he selected to take on City.
That’s not how you play if you believe you possess eleven footballers who can mix it with a team just one place above you in the division. That’s how you play when you know you are inferior to your opponent: when you know you are outclassed in almost every single aspect, including in the dugout. It was a game that looked more like a cup clash between a top-tier side and a plucky lower-league outfit.
But this is Manchester United. At home. Chasing a league title. Supposedly.
All thing considered, it was an insipid, cowardly display from the Red Devils.
But it pretty much reflects what Mourinho is all about. Without going Full Clarkson, what he’s done at United is a bit like the owner of a Bugatti Veyron stripping it down, installing a Micra engine and only ever driving it at 20mph – while wearing a safety helmet – for fear of scratching the paintwork.
The Portugese is a manager who has always dealt in fear. He exists in a cloud of terror, besieging his players and staff with an us-against-them underdog mentality. But, again: this is Manchester United.
How long before United supporters recognise that this is not what they should be expecting from their coach? Have they become so beaten down because of the abortive Moyes and Van Gaal eras that they no longer believe their team is capable of more than resorting to bus-parked, Route One football when faced with a competent opponent?
The worst thing for United is that Pep Guardiola’s team never even got out of third gear. They simply didn’t have to. They approached the game with the vaguely bored patience of a side who have become accustomed to gradually unpicking the massed defensive ranks with which they are now inevitably met. On Sunday, they cruised past United without ever needing to break a sweat.
And so, for all the standard-issue José Mourinho obfuscation in front of the media after the match, he actually managed to get one thing right: the title race is over. City’s comfortable victory merely confirmed what most people already knew – Guardiola’s charges are on a different level to every other team in the division, including their local rivals.
United fans would do well to see beyond Milk-gate and all the talk about penalties.
Don’t fall for the stories that football’s King of Fake News will spin you in order to conceal his – and his team’s – shortcomings. Manchester United can do better than José Mourinho.
The only problem is, the two men who are arguably the most suitable candidates to replace him are currently in charge of their two biggest rivals.