José Mourinho surely cannot survive much more of this. His Manchester United team have become so painfully pedestrian, so lacking in life, so devoid of any discernible pattern of play that his days as manager are surely numbered. The empty seats at the final whistle formed a damning image of fans’ frustration. The boos from some of those who remained provided a powerful sound of gathering rebellion. The football is just joyless.
Valencia demonstrated more heart and organisation, with their centre backs Gabriel and Ezequiel Garay impressing, but they are hardly European heavyweights — they lie 14th in La Liga — and in four of United’s next seven fixtures they travel to Chelsea, Manchester City and Juventus, whom they also face at home. The fear among United fans is that they could suffer even worse.
So Mourinho can rail against the media and the pundits for decrying his side but he cannot argue with the court of public opinion at Old Trafford, and it was hard not to escape the feeling that this was the dark night, and putrid performance, that fully tested the fans’ patience and some snapped.
The bouts of dissent were only brief, at half-time and full-time, but there was the frequent, vainful beseeching to “attack, attack, attack” and sighs swirling around the ground when passes went astray, throw-ins missed their man, and corners were planted straight into the clutches of the Valencia goalkeeper Neto.
Oct 23 Manchester United vs Juventus (8pm), Young v Valencia (5:55pm)
Nov. 7 Juventus v Manchester (8pm); Valencia v Young Boys (5:55pm)
Nov. 27 (8pm) Juventus v Valencia; Manchester United v Young Boys
Dec. 12 (8pm) Valencia v Manchester United; Young Boys v Juventus
Where other sides have nimble forces in midfield, Mourinho started Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini. Why not play just Matic, and then deploy a more mobile, creative player such as Fred alongside? This would allow United to move more quickly through midfield, bringing better service to Romelu Lukaku. Mourinho’s tactics are increasingly baffling. The list of his man-management failures lengthened when he questioned the ability of Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly to bring the ball out from the back.
United formed a huddle before the start, clearly trying to show their togetherness, and they may well be together but are they behind Mourinho? If they were supposed to be fighting for their manager, they bordered on the pacifist.
Manchester United 0 – 0 Valencia CF
The senior players were particularly culpable. Paul Pogba was ineffective, failing to impose his undoubted talent. Matic and Fellaini gave little. Antonio Valencia got caught out of position. Alexis Sánchez was busy, scampering in from the right, but to no effect, too frequently running into traffic, like the United bus.
Only Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw displayed real hunger for the cause, playing with the sort of determination that characterised previous generations.
In times of trouble, people turn even more to nostalgia and there was plenty of cheering as David Beckham marched in, heading down the players’ tunnel, greeting familiar faces among staff and stewards. Ryan Giggs was also here, taking his place in a crowd who once revelled in his ability to tear opponents apart. Ruefulness coloured supporters’ applause for these former wingers, a reminder of how much the old flair, the old belief was missed, as United again slowly deflated like a balloon.
As well as nostalgia, there was also a whiff of cordite in the air in the BT studio before the game, where Paul Scholes was particularly excoriating in his critique of Mourinho, voicing his surprise that the manager had kept his job after the loss to West Ham United and that “he’s embarrassing the club”.
Mourinho again challenged his players, reminding them of the importance of selflessness, writing in his programme notes that “the crest on the chest is more important than the name on the back of the shirt”. But the style beloved by fans here is more important than his pragmatism, and even that is not bringing the right results. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, the football here has gone from the poetic to the prosaic.
The board have a decision to make on whether they can let this decline continue, seeing them struggle to qualify for the Champions League, or whether they believe Mourinho can turn it around.
United supporters kept singing, the great wall of humanity on the Stretford End roaring out exhortations, yet they were treated to a display from a side shorn of confidence. Mistakes piled up. Pogba had time and space to make a clearance down the left, but he went for a dink towards Rashford, who was closely marked. Cristiano Piccini nicked the ball, and Pogba, attempting to retrieve the situation, turned his ankle. He lay there, such talent, so immobile, a symbol of United under Mourinho.
Pogba eventually continued, and released Lukaku with a magnificent ball down the inside-right channel. This was what the fans craved, a quick, incisive attack, their stars linking and delivering, but Lukaku’s shot was pushed away by Neto. The Brazilian then denied Lukaku from close range.
Mourinho made his first change with 14 minutes remaining and some home fans slipping away, heading for the exits. Anthony Martial ran on, replacing Sánchez, with Rashford switching right. Yet United were still sluggish, and they all stood and watched as Valencia stormed through, and they were rescued only when Guedes bizarrely decided to cut the ball back rather than shoot.
When Pogba was then tugged back, chasing the return from Lukaku, United were gifted a free kick 20 yards out but Lukaku simply put the ball into the wall, triggering another wave of frustration spreading around the United fans. The Stretford End chanted: “Attack, attack, attack.”
They hoped that United could conjure up a special finish, rolling back the years to the era of Beckham and Giggs, reviving memories of Fergie time. Rashford curled a free kick on to the bar and then Lukaku headed over from a Shaw corner, and the drift towards the exits became a flood, the fans voting with their feet.