Manchester United are in a decent position to qualify for the next round of the Champions League after drawing 0-0 away with Sevilla. Leaving Spain without an away goal makes the return leg riskier than it should be but Jose Mourinho’s team will be favourites to progress to the quarter-finals.
This is just the second time that United have qualified for the Champions League since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Louis van Gaal guided them to a top four finish in his first season but United failed to get out of the group.
A goalless draw in a round of 16 match against one of the easier teams still remaining in the competition would have been nothing to celebrate when Ferguson was at the club. But Ferguson isn’t still at the club, he’s been gone for a while now, and supporters are still struggling to make the adjustment to life without him.
The depths that the club was dragged to under David Moyes and, to a lesser extent, Louis van Gaal, has meant that Mourinho was left with a huge task.
While the cash spent since Ferguson’s retirement gets cited a lot, it’s worth remembering that many of the transfers before Mourinho were a complete waste of money.
Angel Di Maria, Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay and Bastian Schweinsteiger all joined and left the club within the space of a couple of seasons. Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind and possibly Ander Herrera will follow them through the exit door this summer.
United’s recruitment was poor, which is why you often see them still playing now with a back five of players who were all at the club when Ferguson was, in Ashley Young, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia and David de Gea.
Yet the biggest problem for United fans, judging from the reaction on social media following Wednesday night’s draw, is not necessarily the personnel, but the tactics.
United had just one shot on target against Sevilla, in comparison to the home team’s eight. De Gea was called upon to make a few fantastic stops after United’s defence kept going to sleep and the midfield couldn’t keep hold of the ball.
Stifling the opposition is Mourinho’s main goal in the big games, even when playing against teams United should and could beat if they attacked them.
“For me, beautiful football is not giving our opponents what they want,” Mourinho has said in the past, which is not a statement United fans can tolerate. They know what beautiful football is. They enjoyed watching it for over a couple of decades with Ferguson and saw the silverware it brought in. They see Pep Guardiola employing it with rivals City and, while he’s yet to win any silverware, will be rewarded with at least the Premier League title this season.
However, it’s important for United supporters to get some perspective. Mourinho isn’t going to be here for years, as Ferguson was, but was brought in to steady the ship, win some silverware, attract top players and bring the winning feeling back to Old Trafford.
As it stands, United are the second best team in the country and are still competing for two trophies this season, to add to the two they won last season.
Drawing 0-0 with Sevilla, a team that beat the second best side in Spain, Atletico Madrid, home and away a few weeks ago, isn’t a bad result. Playing it safe away so they can take more risks at home isn’t an awful approach, and isn’t one that Ferguson was averse to.
Mourinho does what he needs to win and playing conservatively is how he goes about it. That’s frustrating for fans who know it isn’t the only way to bring about success but it’s not as if his methods were unknown before he was appointed.
There were plenty of supporters crying out for him to get the job when Moyes was chosen, and even more wanting the same when Van Gaal left the club.
Mourinho is the right man for now, even if he isn’t the right man forever. Maybe United can take a gamble on Thomas Tuchel or Luis Enrique at some point, but after all the money that was spent during Moyes and Van Gaal’s time at the club, United weren’t in a position to take a risk for their third appointment after Ferguson’s retirement. They needed a safe pair of hands and that is what Mourinho is, for the most part.
The contract extension he signed last month was significant. Not because it means that Mourinho will certainly be here until 2020 but so there is some stability at the club. The turnaround from 2014 to now is massive and it’s as unrealistic to expect Mourinho to totally change his style as it is to demand United should already be in a position to win the title.
All four of City’s best performing players of this season were already at the club when Guardiola took charge. United didn’t have a striker anywhere near the level of Sergio Aguero. They didn’t have midfielders who were even close to being as good as David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne. They didn’t have a player with the experience and potential of Raheem Sterling, the most expensive British player in the league (before Kyle Walker took that title from him last summer), waiting for the right manager to bring out the best in him.
City have outspent United in four of the last five seasons and Guardiola has been able to add to the world-class talent already at the club with his spending. Mourinho, by contrast, was tasked with recruiting a spine to the team. He wasn’t in a position to splash a fortune on full-backs, as City have, as he needed to establish the basics in his squad, before addressing other weaknesses.
United fans are impatient and the success down the road has only increased their desire to be back to where they were under Ferguson. But these things take time and, despite what they may think, it is not their right to be the best. Mourinho may well never be the manager that takes United back to the top but he is the one to take them in the right direction and, for now at least, that will have to do.