Scott Patterson: Who’s responsible for United’s inconsistency – the players or the manager?

The Republik of Mancunia writer asks whether the cause of United's failure to dispatch weaker sides lies with Jose Mourinho or the players under his control...

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One of the more frustrating things about being a Manchester United supporter these days is not knowing which team is going to show up. Will it be the United that has beaten Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea? Or the United that has lost to Bristol City, West Brom and Sevilla? It’s one extreme to another.

On Friday night, United were beaten by Brighton, meaning they have now lost to all three of the promoted teams this season, which is appalling. It’s no wonder they are as far behind City when they’ve struggled so much against the weaker sides. Those matches are bread and butter for the teams who win the league and it’s United’s inability to beat these clubs which has cost them anything resembling a title challenge.

Whenever something goes wrong, questions must be asked over who is at fault, but the answer differs from person to person.

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There’s no doubt that Jose Mourinho thinks the blame lies with the players. He tells everyone often enough who is costing the team, whether by mentioning them explicitly by name or giving heavy enough clues.

All season, supporters and journalists have been crying out for Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to be given a more prominent role in the team, rather than playing Romelu Lukaku every week. The Belgian’s injury meant he was unavailable for Friday night’s match, with the two young forwards both starting, and the manager left us with no doubt over who he believed was at fault for the defeat.

“Maybe now you understand why some players play more than others and you don’t ask all the time why A, B and C don’t play more,” Mourinho said in his post-match interview. “I thought for some of them the possibility to start the game or to give a reason to the ones that during the season there is always criticism to my choices – ‘why always Lukaku?’. You have the answer.”

Mourinho seems to be forgetting that Lukaku has played in his fair share of defeats as well, and has contributed to them by his inability to put away the easy chances that were created for him in those games.

The same applies to Chris Smalling, Ashley Young, Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba, who play every game, including the more embarrassing losses, yet somehow (with the exception of Pogba, who gets singled out for criticism) aren’t held responsible for the defeats, as Rashford and Martial seemingly were after Brighton.

It’s true that neither young forward did much to write home about, which could be said for the entire starting XI. Considering they aren’t given a consistent run in the team, it’s understandable that it may be more difficult for things to click perfectly into place when they’re presented with a rare opportunity.

While questions have to be asked of the manager and his failure to motivate his players for the lesser games, the players too have to take their responsibility for their performances.

They’re professionals, who love the game and want to win, so why so often have they put in such lacklustre displays? Where is their own sense of pride that brings out the 100% effort? Losing games happens but the manner in which United have dropped points has too regularly been through a total lack of effort or urgency from those on the pitch.

Whether it was nonchalance or just poor decision making, Rashford will be kicking himself for not setting up a goal for Martial in the Brighton game. He did the hard bit, in winning back the ball outside the box and beating his man. There was a brief window where he had to pull the ball back across for an unmarked Martial, who almost certainly would have scored from a few yards out. Instead, he hesitated and the chance was gone.

These things happen, and it would be unfair to suggest that Lukaku has never made similar mistakes, yet that was the perfect opportunity for the young pair to justify their inclusion.

While Rashford has been praised regularly by Mourinho over the past couple of years, and has been played more by the manager than any other outfield player during his time at the club, it’s clear Mourinho is yet to be totally convinced.

As for Martial, it appears as though the manager is simply not a fan and wouldn’t be bothered to see him leave.

The same applies for a whole host of other players, including Luke Shaw, Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind and possibly even Ander Herrera, although the Spaniard has played more regularly recently.

This summer could be a huge one for the club, in terms of the changes and money spent.

Mourinho didn’t have the same luxury as Pep Guardiola in inheriting the team’s best players. He didn’t have a David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero or Raheem Sterling. He had David de Gea as his only world class player. It’s fairly remarkable that Manchester City have still managed to outspend everyone else despite their key players already being in place.

United have attempted to establish a similar core of vital players in Lukaku, Pogba and Alexis Sanchez. Despite only being at the club for a few months, the latter has started to make his mark, with his performance at the Etihad turning a 2-0 defeat in to a 3-2 win, as well as scoring the goal that put United in the FA Cup final. He’s not firing on all cylinders yet though.

Lukaku is the club’s top scorer, with 27 goals and seven assists, which you would expect given the amount of playing time he’s been afforded. While that is a decent return for his first year, he’s fallen some way short of other top strikers, like Harry Kane and Aguero.

As for Pogba, he’s been totally hit and miss. Fantastic in some games then anonymous in others. There’s been no consistency to his performance level, something the manager has publicly bemoaned.

If Mourinho is going to win the Premier League or Champions League with United, he will likely have to build that team this summer. Whatever he says about loving being at the club and having no plans for his next move, something he admitted to feeling everywhere else, it’s hard to see him spending a fourth or fifth season in Manchester.

With two years grace, at the very least, Mourinho must compete for the title next season.

The reassuring thing is the team is heading in the right direction, with two trophies last season and leapfrogging all the teams, with the exception of City, who finished above them last season. There may yet be another trophy on the way if they beat his former club Chelsea in the FA Cup final.

But the foundation feels very fragile at the moment, especially following damning comments like the manager’s on Friday, so the pressure is on Mourinho to steady the ship ahead of next season. They must be better and Mourinho has to make that happen.

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What do you think?