Jose Mourinho was condemned for his negative tactics after Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League to Sevilla, with Alexis Sanchez anonymous and Paul Pogba’s confidence apparently in tatters.
United, riding high in the Premier League, started the second leg of their last-16 tie on Tuesday night as strong favourites to progress to the quarterfinals after a goalless draw in Spain but mustered just four shots on target across both legs.
Two late goals from substitute Wissam Ben Yedder gave the home side a mountain to climb and a consolation goal from Romelu Lukaku was far too little, too late, with United exiting the competition 2-1 on aggregate.
Mourinho fielded four forwards – Sanchez, Lukaku, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard – in an attacking-looking line-up at Old Trafford, but United only broke free of the shackles in the desperate closing minutes.
A stubborn Mourinho, who has won the competition with Porto and Inter Milan, said his side had not put in a “bad performance” but that contrasted with the sour mood in Manchester after a first home European defeat since 2013 to a Sevilla side only fifth in La Liga.
“If you are a team at home, the onus is on you to go out and attack and make sure you take the game away from the opposing team,” said former United defender Rio Ferdinand, who won the Champions League under Alex Ferguson in 2008.
The question for fans is why Mourinho is seemingly unable – or unwilling – to set his attacking superstars free.
Pogba, who cost a then world-record £89 million ($124 million) in 2016 as Mourinho’s first big signing, was again dropped, this time in favour of the more robust Marouane Fellaini, a decision that drew stinging criticism from the Times newspaper.
“Fellaini was by no means United’s worst player but what was he there for exactly? To expose what failing in Seville? To bring what to United’s midfield?” asked chief sports writer Matt Dickinson.
“True, he did go closer than his teammates to breaking the deadlock but if picking him always felt like turning up at a party with a baseball bat, United were duly lacking in any subtlety. Creative passing through central midfield was non-existent.”
The Telegraph called United’s display “embarrassingly inept”.
Only once the situation was dire did Mourinho throw on another £70 million of attacking talent in Anthony Martial and Juan Mata to ride to the rescue. But to no avail.
“There are players in that squad to play good attacking football with the money that’s been spent,” said former United midfielder Paul Scholes, also part of the team that won the 2008 Champions League.
A major investment was also made to bring Sanchez to the club in January on reportedly the most lucrative contract in Premier League history but he has been a huge disappointment so far.
“Sanchez for one, he just looks a shadow of the player he was,” said Ferdinand. “When he was at Arsenal he was the one everyone looked to for inspiration. Here, he just looks like a stranger in this team.”
The mounting evidence suggests it is Mourinho’s failure to harness the best from his attacking players that is to blame, rather than a clutch of stars going off the boil.
Despite the uncomfortable marriage between United’s much-vaunted attacking history and Mourinho’s cagey tactics, the club have backed their manager, rewarding him with a new contract until 2020 and he hinted that even more cash may be thrown at fixing United’s problems.
“Everything together [needs to improve], everybody spends money, not just us,” said Mourinho.
The added problem for Mourinho is that runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City are setting pulses racing, and the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham also play an exciting brand of football.
In contrast, Mourinho has little to fall back on when his results-driven approach fails to deliver.
“They approach every game conservatively, some games they get away with,” said Scholes.
“The performance was very bad and they lost, as they rightly should do, but there are a lot of performances exactly the same and they win and it gets swept under the carpet.”