What went wrong with Manchester United?
United had not conceded in six games since Boxing Day, so having their defence pierced so early was shocking. For them to concede a second after just 28 minutes, thanks to a Phil Jones own goal, was therefore another shock. Jones looked out of sorts all night. It was not the kind of performance one might have expected from England’s first choice centre back.
There seemed to be a disconnect in the team at Wembley on Wednesday, a conflict between the style of play that Mourinho favours, and the type of players he has at his disposal.
Paul Pogba is a thoroughbred, all-round midfield player, the kind of man to build a team around.
On Wednesday he showed that kind of quality in patches, but his wide ranging left his central midfield partner Nemanja Matic on his own to protect the back four. Pogba’s substitution after 66 minutes for the much more workmanlike Marouane Fellaini could be a metaphor for Mourinho’s thinking. For Pogba to be unleashed properly, another central midfield player needs to be included, so that he has the freedom to do what he does best.
Is Mourinho to blame?
There is a feeling from some quarters that this is a problem of basic lack of fit between Mourinho’s overarching football philosophy and the players he has at his disposal. Mourinho sets up teams in organised structures, with players expected to subsume many of their own more free-flowing instincts, in order for the overall tactical plan to work.
It could be said that with players like Juan Mata, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard as his attacking midfielders, Mourinho doesn’t quite know how to use them properly. There is a perception that he might be more comfortable working with players with less footballing ability, who are capable of fitting into his carefully plotted tactical designs. Of course, that is not the only issue with Wednesday night’s performance.
Other observers might point to the lacklustre displays in defence of the likes of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. Perhaps Sanchez was not really the type of player Mourinho would have liked to sign in January.
What his team looks like it needs is a hard and tough midfielder, in the model of United great Roy Keane. Someone who can organise, inspire and keep the structures intact, allowing the likes of Lingard and Lukaku, along with Pogba, the freedom to create and score goals. The thing is, players like that are pretty thin on the ground right now. If United are to catch up with their neighbours Manchester City in the coming seasons, finding a better balance in midfield should be a priority.