Manchester United remain a puzzle that's only getting harder to solve
Jose Mourinho was still seething. Antagonised by a benign BBC interview after the draw with West Brom, his frustration leaked into his programme notes ahead of the midweek game with Everton. Manchester United must score the first goal in, he insisted, particularly against teams who “come to Old Trafford without aiming to cross the halfway line”.
Close your eyes and you can hear the feint sound of Tony Pulis’s Severn Bridge chuckle.
The trouble for Mourinho is that with the opportunity of managing United comes an intolerance for excuses. The Portuguese has placed great emphasis on his side’s chance-creation statistics this season but, while not technically wrong, that’s not something of any great significance. Look around Old Trafford and you see why: the stadium is decorated with banners which celebrate the club’s decadently successful past and there’s no room here for could haves or should haves.
An adjustment period?
Maybe that’s something Mourinho still has to come to terms with. United are perhaps the most binary club in the country and the place where his obfuscation counts for the least.
While his fundamentalists have drawn attention to the long, unbeaten Premier League record at his new club (20 games now), the more lucid majority have looked on with blank expressions, seen old and new rivals disappear into the distance, and wondered aloud why all this - the superstar manager and the glittering boutique of players - isn’t adding up to more. They see the missed chances and the strong goalkeeping performances; they even hear the rattle of the woodwork. The difference, though, is that they see those as symptoms of failure rather than, as Mourinho would have it, an asterisk.
One of the reasons why life here is so opaque, is partly because of the Portuguese’s contrarianism in selection. His side struggled to cut through West Brom’s forest of centre-halves at the weekend and, in retaliation against an Everton team whose obdurate middle makes them mildly comparable, his teamsheet here was surely begging for incision.
But it lacked any such edge: Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard started in the wide areas and were initially lively, but United were troublingly static elsewhere. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba, Mourinho’s most dynamic and creative players respectively, were left on the bench, with Marouane Fellaini charged with providing support to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick ordered to cut the lines with their passing.
Mourinho emphasised the importance of the first goal pre-game and yet picked a team which wasn’t really equipped to thunder forward. United, as is now their unwelcome default, were laboured and ineffective – an early Ibrahimovic chance aside – and it was Everton who played the more lively football.
It was also Everton who scored the game’s first goal, Phil Jagielka bending an ageing leg around a loose ball and flicking it beyond David de Gea from close range.
There was a time when going ahead at Old Trafford was an act of war; sometimes visiting sides would catch United on a sleepy day, but then sting them into action with an early goal. Not now. Daley Blind drew a good, reaching save from Joel Robles with a swirling free-kick and Ashley Young drove a dangerous low ball across the penalty box, but the response was largely meek and there was no real hint of that retaliatory ferocity.
“Who wants it?” bellowed a home fan from behind the dugout whenever United dallied. He had a point.
With the second half came Paul Pogba, subbed on to replace Daley Blind as Mourinho repurposed Herrera as first a left-, then a right-back. United didn’t necessarily improve, but the pace of the game quickened: a Pogba header shook the bar, and Old Trafford to life. Soon after, Mkhitaryan was introduced from the bench and, with Young injured, Luke Shaw followed him.
But if United’s theoretical threat grew, a real one took much, much longer to materialise. Conveniently, that second half supported the most common criticism they face: that their headliners act as a fig leaf for an ugly dysfunction. That's something which shows in the critical moments. When goals are needed and inspiration is sought, the same players are targeted; there’s no obvious belief in an encasing system and that’s likely why this team pursue games in such a chaotic way. Those final, frantic minutes against Everton may have eventually yielded an equaliser, but they were still predicated upon hope rather than expectation.
It was lottery ticket football. Crosses were played with eyes shut and passes were shovelled wide and towards the box in the hope that someone, eventually, would take responsibility. Really, we’re at Old Trafford and this is Manchester United?