“There is no time to be sad. This is football. This is not the end of the world.” In the grand scheme of things, José Mourinho’s assertion after the dismal defeat at home to Sevilla was a perfectly valid one, but there is no denying that the loss is one of the worst, and most damaging, suffered since the Portuguese joined Manchester United almost two years ago.
It wasn’t just the defeat itself – which denied the ‘Red Devils’ only their second Champions League quarter-final appearance in the post-Alex Ferguson era – that will have frustrated United supporters but the manner in which it came to fruition.
Many understandably criticised Mourinho for his tactical approach to the first-leg tie at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, where his side purposefully sat back and played for a goalless draw, but it can be argued that the result was a perfectly adequate one for a team boasting such an impressive home record.
Prior to Tuesday’s defeat, only Manchester City – on two separate occasions – had managed to come to Old Trafford and leave victorious since Southampton did so in January 2016. It was an excellent run that had once again made the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ a formidable fortress both domestically and in Europe, where United were unbeaten in over five years. (The opposition manager that day? Mourinho.)
United would have been understandably confident heading into the Sevilla tie. Chelsea and Liverpool had both left empty-handed in the two preceding games, and those were the only two occasions in six league outings that they had conceded goals in front of their own fans.
Sevilla, on the other hand, had lost heavily away from home against CSKA Moscow in the group stage and conceded five times in two meetings with Liverpool. A team that had struggled for consistency in the first half of the season under Eduardo Berizzo were still looking fragile with Vincenzo Montella in charge.
United would have to be clever and quickly hit their opponents when opportunities presented themselves, but they undeniably had the upper hand at the start of the night. Which is what makes Mourinho’s approach all the more baffling.
Despite their struggles this season, Sevilla are far from being a bad team, and, as eventually proved to be the case, they offer plenty of threat in attack when given space to operate in. But they are a side that United should have comfortably beaten, and the way to do so seemed obvious to everybody but Mourinho.
The lack of urgency showed by United, coupled with the inclusion of Marouane Fellaini alongside Nemanja Matić at the base of midfield, was painful to watch, as time and time again they played into Sevilla’s hands with slow, directionless passing.
Fellaini – who, ironically, enjoyed one of United’s best chances on goal before making way for Paul Pogba – was often caught out of position, gifting Sevilla far too much space in the centre of the pitch.
Luckily for the Belgian, poor decision-making by Luis Muriel and Franco Vázquez denied Sevilla the chance to take advantage of his sloppy defensive play, but the warning signs were there.
Fellaini was caught up the pitch as he attempted to attack, but both he and his team-mates lacked the speed and aggression needed to trouble a Sevilla back line that were rarely tested.
Clément Lenglet impressed when dealing with Romelu Lukaku – who, arguably, was one of the only United players showing any sort of fight – but the home side’s approach play was too laboured to cause many problems for a team that had conceded ten goals in four games prior to Tuesday’s contest.
In wider areas, they failed to fully utilise the pace of Marcus Rashford, who wasn’t brought into play quickly enough when possession turned over, whilst Alexis Sánchez continued his worryingly poor start to life in Manchester with another meek display.
Much criticism has been levelled at Mourinho for his reactive approach to big games, but, as was the case against Chelsea and Liverpool recently and at home to Tottenham Hotspur earlier in the season, the Portuguese is often able to achieve the required results with defensively solid, organisationally astute performances.
It’s what has made him one of the 21st century’s finest managers, but it’s also what risks undoing all of his achievements.
Against Sevilla, Mourinho remained wedded to pragmatism when all of the signs pointed towards a different approach. The space left available by the Spanish side whenever they committed bodies forward wasn’t utilised by United, who remained far too rigid when in possession.
On only four occasions over 180 minutes were they able to test goalkeeper Sergio Rico, and only once – when they went 2-0 down – did they show any sort of fight and urgency inside the final third of the pitch. By then, though, it was too late.
Football is all about results, and as long as their team are performing at their best, supporters can have few complaints about the approaches used.
But Mourinho’s inability to break from defensive pragmatism, even when such an approach is unwarranted, is a worrying development that could seriously damage United’s end to the season.