Manchester United's humbling loss to Sevilla - a lesson for Mourinho
Manchester United’s last three matches saw them beat Chelsea after going down 1-0, overcome a strangely resurgent Crystal Palace away from home, and steal three points off Liverpool in a bid to consolidate their second place on the league table.
Going into their Champions League match against Sevilla, it seemed like the perfect setting for the Red Devils as they had ramped up their confidence from recent wins and a Champions League trophy would go a long way in compensating for their scrappy playing style this season which has left them a huge 16 points behind league leaders Manchester City.
Players, fans and media alike seemed perfectly optimistic to assume that despite any challenges Sevilla might throw their way, United will surely overcome them, especially since the stage is Old Trafford.
At every club Jose Mourinho has ever managed, he has turned the home stadium into a fortress of the sort, building impressive unbeaten runs. His time at Manchester United has been no different, considering United has only lost to Manchester City in the last two years at home and only one defeat in European competitions in last five year; at least that was the stat before Tuesday night.
As a result, it wasn’t too irrational for fans to expect that United would progress to the last eight. However, a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Vincenzo Montella’s Los Rojiblancos has left many with a broken heart and a sense of disbelief, disappointment and anguish at the way Mourinho managed United.
It started with a bizarre team selection which saw Marouane Fellaini start ahead of Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba, while Marcus Rashford was shifted to the right wing, making space for Alexis Sanchez on the left and Jesse Lingard down the middle to support Romelu Lukaku up front.
Scott McTominay put in his best performance in United colours in the last match against Liverpool and starting Fellaini, someone who last played on 31st January, in his place, did not offer much promise for the fans. Similarly, Rashford put in a brilliant display against arch-rivals Liverpool on Saturday and shunting him out of the position that he plays at best only managed to confuse further.
The reasons for both the changes would soon be apparent as United took the field. This game presented Mourinho with a unique paradox. While he enjoyed the benefit of playing in front of a rousing home support, recently empowered with a new signing section, the tactical advantage lay with Sevilla who just needed to draw to progress through to the quarter-finals. For United, nothing but a win could do it.
After 45 minutes of an almost even tied affair, Mourinho’s United had a lone shot on goal through Fellaini, while Sevilla had none. The frizzy-haired Belgian was playing as a box-to-box midfielder shouldering both defensive and attacking responsibilities. Up the field, it seemed Mourinho had wanted Fellaini to be the primary target man as the outfield players kept pinging long balls to the midfielder, who would shuttle to Sevilla box read to receive and lay it down for Lukaku to finish.
Unfortunately, the strategy didn’t pay off as Fellaini and Lukaku’s link-up play did not click. The one chance that could have seen United take the lead was driven straight at Rojiblancos keeper Sergio Rico by Fellaini, instead of squaring it Lukaku. Despite his many criticisms, Fellaini did not play badly. In fact, other than Lukaku and Eric Bailly, he was one of the better performers in the team, constantly creating pressure on the defenders and then shuttling back to defend the counter. However, Lukaku and Fellaini lacked the fluidity that Martial and Lukaku or Lingard and Lukaku generally enjoy, which ultimately starved the centre-forward of quality chances, despite United creating multiple opportunities.
It seemed odd that Mourinho chose to use Fellaini in the final third so early in the game, despite him being out of the game for so long. Additionally, Juan Mata, Rashford, Anthony Martial, Lingard, Sanchez and Lukaku enjoy a much better partnership, having played with each other on numerous occasions. In fact, United’s best chance of the game (apart from the one Lukaku scored) came when Juan Mata squared a ball to Lukaku in the dying minutes of the match.
The primary reason for this strategy might have been the fact that Mourinho wanted to prioritize a clean sheet since even a draw would have given the game away. He wanted to use Fellaini’s physical presence in the middle of the pitch, as well as use him as an interceptor for long balls and feed it to Lukaku. Playing Paul Pogba would open his team up to counter-attacks, while Scott McTominay might not be ready to shoulder such massive responsibilities yet.
Unfortunately yet unsurprisingly, Nemanja Matic and Fellaini’s combination in the midfield left huge gaps for Sevilla to exploit. Their partnership lacked the mental understanding and Matic would often be drawn out of position, making a Fellaini track back with urgency to cover the space. Had it not been for Bailly’s impressive performance and the support from other forwards in tracking back, United would have conceded sooner in the game.
After the start of the second half, the intensity of the game started to take its toll on Fellaini who looked wearier by the minute. Red Devils fans had to wait for another 15 minutes to see the first substitution and even then it wasn’t the most attack-minded change. Only after conceding the opening goal, did Mourinho bring on Mata and Martial, but by then it was too late.
Had Mourinho brought on the forward earlier in the game, he could have exploited Sevilla’s gaps in defence to break them down. It very well could have been an emphatic win, only if United did not wait until the last minute to let themselves off the shackles.
Pragmatic gameplay surely has its place, but in times when winning is the only way out, it doesn’t offer much. In such situations, he should have let his forwards roam wild while using McTominay and Matic to support the back four.
Despite the loss, Mourinho’s United is still the best since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. We can only hope that the two-time Champions League winner takes a lesson from this loss to ensure that future cup competitions don’t end in the same way.