The specter of collapse had been lingering for months. Maybe longer. It brewed last season below the surface, then boiled over the summer. Finally, on the second weekend of the Premier League season, it exploded down on England’s south coast, the most predictable of flops, every bit as embarrassing as envisioned.
Manchester United lost 3-2 to Brighton on Sunday. Manchester United, the kings of England, lost 3-2 to Brighton, a club that had recently spent 34 straight seasons outside the top flight. It deserved to lose, did lose, will lose some more.
It looked second-rate because it is second-rate, unable to boss games, prone to mistakes. The players aren’t good enough. The manger isn’t good enough, and isn’t making the players any better.
The Red Devils were stagnant as Brighton took the game to them late in the first half. Glenn Murray snuck in behind Victor Lindelof to caress home a 25th-minute opener. Two minutes later, United scrambled to clear a corner like Sunday leaguers would and conceded again. Before halftime, it tried to emulate its chief rival, Manchester City, only to be smacked flush in the face by its own shortcomings.
It is easy to overreact to one game – to shower United with pessimism, to foresee Jose Mourinho’s departure, to deem his reign a failure. On one hand, doing all that would be premature.
But it was similarly easy to see Sunday coming. It is clear that the Mourinho era is fizzling out.
Manchester United’s defensive failures
The problem on United’s first goal was a simple one: Lindelof wasn’t and isn’t good enough. He was beaten one-v-one by the oh-so-clever Murray, whose finish was lovely:
A host of players were at fault on the second, a reflection of the futility of Mourinho’s approach to the modern game. Reactions were slow. Nobody took command.
Eric Bailly, dominant and savior-like nine days earlier, was rash on the third. Fred, supposedly an upgrade in midfield, was sloppy. Bailly failed to sniff out danger. His recovery was laborious, his decision to attempt a last-ditch tackle misguided:
“Too many mistakes,” Mourinho said bluntly in his postmatch interview.
And he was right. On one hand, the individual failures vindicated all of Mourinho’s moaning. He wanted new center backs during the summer transfer window. Whoever is in charge of recruitment at Manchester United didn’t buy Mourinho any. And the deficiencies of the defenders already under contract are being exposed.
On the other hand, Bailly and Lindelof were both Mourinho signings. They haven’t improved one iota under the United boss. Nor have other center backs the 55-year-old inherited.
So yes, Toby Alderweireld or Harry Maguire would have improved United. Yes, one or both might have changed Sunday’s outcome. But the blame for United’s downfall, more often than not, can be traced back to Mourinho.
Manchester United’s attacking impotence
Plus, Bailly and Lindelof are far more talented than the center backs who lined up opposite them on Sunday. Brighton lost one of its regulars, Lewis Dunk, to injury 20 minutes into the game. United rarely tested his partner and his replacement. The partner, Shane Duffy brought down Marouane Fellaini for a stoppage-time penalty. All it served to do was make the scoreline more respectable.
United hadn’t put nearly enough pressure on Brighton’s midfield four and back four throughout the 90 minutes. There was neither urgency nor a coherent attacking plan. Movement was insufficient. Connections were lacking.
Mourinho and his supporters might point to a 10th-minute Romelu Lukaku chance and validly argue that had Lukaku converted, the game would have been much, much different. And it absolutely would have.
But the weight of those what-ifs is telling. United has been reduced by Mourinho’s conservatism to winning or losing on the margins, rather than in style, with ruthless efficiency like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. The contrast on Sunday could not have been more stark. City missed countless chances in the opening 20 minutes against Huddersfield. It kept churning, and eventually hit the Terriers for six.
United, instead, played afraid. It sat back and waited to pounce. Against Brighton. Against Brighton. Mourinho reduced a matchup with a relegation candidate to my one big chance vs. your one big chance. The Red Devils took nine shots, after eight the week prior. Manchester City, hours earlier, had ripped off 32.
At this end of the pitch, it is not about talent. Mourinho has Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Alexis Sanchez (who missed Sunday’s game with an injury). He has turned them into, at most, the Premier League’s sixth-best attack.
Why not sack Mourinho right now?
Mourinho’s style is outdated. His personality is wearing down a club that has simultaneously been mismanaged from up above.
Sunday was only three points dropped. Just three. Only 90 minutes, which should never in a vacuum be cause for a sacking.
But this is about more than 90 minutes. Soon enough, it will be about more than three points dropped. It is so excruciatingly clear that Mourinho is dragging United away from where it wants to go.
And the question must be nagging United chief executive Ed Woodward, who was reportedly in the locker room after Sunday’s defeat: Why wait?
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