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Manchester United fell to a limp and, sadly, deserved defeat on Sunday afternoon at the Amex Stadium. Here are five things we learned:
1. The Players Lacked Desire
Captain for the day Paul Pogba summed it up in his post-match comments to the media: “We lost, we did not deserve to win. The attitude we had was not like we wanted to beat them, they had more hunger than us. I put myself first, my attitude wasn’t right enough”.
At first glance they might appear like brave, even mature comments from the World Cup winner. But admitting that his attitude wasn’t right is a real concern. This is the second game of the season, in a year that the club are expected to mount a genuine title challenge. Manchester City had just annihilated Huddersfield 6-1, and it is clear they are once again going to set a ferocious pace at the top of the division. Why was the attitude not right? This is a team stacked full of experienced internationals who are paid a fortune to perform. Their collective talent is not in question, yet they cannot even muster the one non-negotiable quality: desire.
The statistics back up the fact that they were comprehensively out-fought by a determined and organised Brighton team. According to Opta stats, United ran a total of 99.5 kilometres, as opposed to Brighton’s 108.5km. United also made only 74 sprints in the game – fewer than any side in the opening two games of this Premier League season.
Jamie Redknapp was a far better player than he is a pundit, but his post-match observations were completely correct. “The fact that they did not try that hard to get back into the game is the most damning thing for me. I have never seen a tea lacking so much desire to get back into a game”. There was a visible and tangible malaise about the side which, at this stage of the season is inexplicable and unacceptable. The successful United sides of the Ferguson era were built on the solid foundation of work ethic. Always out-work your opponents and then let the talent do the rest. If only this current incarnation could return to that ethos.
2. The defence was a Horror Show
United’s Portuguese manager is famed for ‘Mourinho-ball’ tactics. His sides have always been structured, organised and difficult to beat, if at times uninspired. That made this defeat even more concerning. Any team can lose a game through ill-fortune or rash mistakes. In this case they were beaten by a better side, who weren’t required to do anything particularly special. The central defensive duo of Bailly and Lindelöf was, at best, shambolic.
For the last two seasons, Mourinho has made this team defensively sound. They boasted the second-best defensive record in the division last year, and any defeats were generally low-scoring affairs. Brighton, particularly in the first half, scored three goals and in truth could have scored more. Coupled with the lack of desire, there was no cohesion in the defensive unit. Bailly was frequently out of position, diving into tackles including conceding the penalty, and generally getting bullied by Glen Murray. Lindelöf struggled in possession and physically seemed unable to impose himself against a very aggressive side.
Both are Mourinho signings and arrived for extortionate fees even in the modern climate. It is clear that they are not a partnership that is suited to playing together, and Mourinho will have to return to the drawing board. Blatantly a new centre half was top of the agenda during the transfer window and ultimately was not delivered. However, the frustrations of the board are clear as they have already invested heavily in this area. Neither are bad players individually, but each seem to require a dominant leader alongside them. Neither player offers leadership or demands the unity required to offer a stable platform. Every time Brighton came forward they looked vulnerable, and in possession they were caught time and again. It was a poor day at the office which cannot be repeated.
3. There is no defined style
It has been discussed at length in the media and with good reason – Manchester United have no defined style of play. Mourinho also does not know his best team, and this game only further exacerbated that problem. United are a reactive side. They do not impose themselves on the opposition, and they no longer inspire fear in their opponents. They sat back waiting to see how Brighton were going to shape up, and were soon shocked by the aggressive pressing of their supposedly inferior opponents.
Build up play was painfully slow, movement of attacking players in the first half was minimal, and they flitted between playing it out from the back and hitting it long; or simply mis-placing passes. This is Mourinho’s third season, and the work carried out on the training ground is not clear.
Defensive frailties were clear, but attacking inadequacies were just as prevalent. Lee Sharpe was critical of the approach speaking to Sky Sports. “I just think the way he (Mourinho) is going about his business, I don’t think he is getting the best from his players. The team has some unbelievable attacking players, but I don’t think they are on the front foot enough, I don’t think they are playing at a quick enough tempo and I don’t think they move the ball enough. He needs to change but he just seems to be too stubborn to alter his approach”.
With the meek attack of the first half, Mourinho attempted to change things in the second with the half time introduction of Rashford and Lingard. They caused a slight improvement, but with Brighton then content to protect what they had, United barely threatened to penetrate a well organised defence, and were probably fortunate to profit from a late mistake from Shane Duffy conceding the penalty for a meaningless consolation.
As the side continued to struggle, the once-revolutionary Mourinho reverted to his tried and trusted lump it long to Fellaini game-plan. With the attacking talent at his disposal, and the investment into the playing squad, it is simply not acceptable to the fans that this is what the club is so often reduced to. It is an inferior mentality that has eroded the confidence of the players. The constant changes, the public criticism, and the lack of any defined attacking style have made United a depressing sight to watch, and the vultures are now unquestionably circling.
4. Pogba was Woeful
Paul Pogba is an elite player. He has just won the World Cup with France and was considered by many to be one of the players of the tournament. In Sunday’s game, he looked incapable of having any positive influence.
Since returning to the club under Mourinho, he has blown hot and cold. There have been countless column inches debating the reasons. He favours a free role in a midfield three, he needs a manager who allows him to express himself, and he needs to focus on his game the way he does on his social media accounts. There is probably truth to each of these points. But what causes him to be just so poor on days such as this one?
As captain, the responsibility of driving the team, of being a leader, has been thrust upon Pogba. This was a side struggling for confidence, as both Pereira and Fred were equally poor in possession and positioning. This is a role in which Pogba struggles. He is at his best playing alongside accomplished, established players who shoulder their share of the attacking and defensive burdens.
A lack of effort was not necessarily Pogba’s problem. It was evident that he was frustrated at the fact that literally nothing was coming off for him. The issue was that he was trying to do too much in possession. Every time he got the ball, he was attempting an audacious dribble of a long-range pass. Rarely was he playing a simple ball or retaining possession. This was at least partly because of his team mates. Many of them, none more so than Anthony Martial, went into their shells and did not show for the ball, and when they did simple errors were being made. There was a clear lack of confidence and it is hard to separate that from the spirit, or lack thereof, Mourinho has created in the camp.
As poor as Pogba was, by his own admission, he also made what was undoubtedly a very deliberate comment that Brighton were “better prepared” than his team. Another subtle dig at the manager as the evident power struggle continues. He is not playing for a manager who allows him or his team mates to flourish, and the players evidently find it as hard to play under as it is for the fans to watch it.
5. Shaw Moving Forward
On a day of few positives, Luke Shaw was one of the only players to emerge from this game with any credit. One of the worst victims of the Mourinho regime, he has returned from his summer break looking fit and motivated, and he offered once again some good attacking thrust down the left side. He offers a balance moving forward that, for all Ashley Young’s endeavour, United have been lacking in the full back area.
He still has some rough edges to his game, but with a run of starts he will undoubtedly improve providing he can stay fit. He possesses all the qualities physically and technically to boost this side in what, in the modern day, is an absolutely crucial position. He did nothing wrong defensively and was a threat when utilised going forward. After his traumatic leg break two seasons ago, he is a player held in affection by the club’s support, and if he continues to get selected he should develop into the player United hoped they were signing from Southampton.
With a fixture against Spurs next Monday, the game has become a must-not-lose, or the club will enter crisis mode if it hasn’t already. With the talent available, there is no reason a positive result cannot be achieved, but belief must be re-discovered, and the players need to play for their manager, which is no longer a given.