I'm more confident for the Europa League final now than I was earlier this week
United's poor recent run of matches are probably not a good measuring stick for predicting how they'll play in Gdansk
Manchester United are both literally and figuratively limping over the finish line in the Premier League. On Tuesday United put on a poor performance as they drew 1-1 with already relegated Fulham in front of 10,000 fans at Old Trafford. The fact that this was the first game with fans back in the stands and that was the performance they put on makes it all the worse.
The draw made it just one win in their last five matches and given the performances United have been putting out recently optimism about next week’s Europa League final is dwindling.
If United play like they did against Fulham they’ll have no chance against Villarreal. The good news is, there’s not much reason to think that they will play like they did against Fulham.
United came out flying against Fulham and were looking very bright for 15 minutes. After that their intensity started to drop off. They were attempting far more fancy shit than they usually do, likely the result of fans being back in the ground and the players wanting to put on a show. As a whole they looked a bit tired.
Last week Marcus Rashford came on for the final 25 minutes against Leicester and with United trying to find an equalizer Rashford never looked like he wanted to be on the pitch. On Tuesday he came on for the final half hour and after being fouled the first time he tried to nutmeg someone, he never looked to get himself into the match.
That’s when it hit me, he probably wasn’t.
United needed to kick into a higher gear to put Fulham away and later grab a winner. They never reached that higher level. It looked like they weren’t trying to find that level either.
Fans don’t want to hear this but the truth is, United probably weren’t trying to hit that higher level. As much as it was important to have the fans back in the ground and to play in front of fans again, no one on United cared about that match. It didn’t mean anything.
I know I know, they’re professional athletes and they get paid a lot of money to play a game, they should always be trying their best etc etc but they’re also human. There’s a cup final next week, everyone wants to play in that match. No one wants to risk getting injured and missing out on it for a game that doesn’t matter.
What’s the upside of going hard into that challenge? Winning the game means nothing. On the other side you go hard into that challenge and you could get your ankle done in and your season is over.
Yes, second place was technically still on the line but really who cares about that?1 It’s something that fans will hang their hat on when they get into arguments on the internet. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be the first to say “that’s nice, but we’re not Champions so we’re still not there?” As long as you qualify for the Champions League for the players there’s not much of a difference between second and fourth.
Don’t believe me? Off the top of your head how many times did Mauricio Pochettino finish second during his run at Tottenham?
You probably said two right? That’s incorrect
Tottenham were the second best team in the league when Leicester won it in 2016, but after drawing at Chelsea in the match that handed Leicester the title, Spurs lost 2-1 to Southampton and then got trounced 5-1 by a Newcastle side that were relegated to finish third. The players just didn’t care? What’s it matter anyway? We didn’t finish first, what difference is second or third?
Now think about United’s recent run of games.
After a lackluster first half against AS Roma in the first leg of the semifinal United turned it on in the second half scoring five goals and taking a 6-2 lead to the second leg effectively giving them one foot in the door of the final.
They’re next match was that second leg in Rome. United came out looking like a team just trying to see out 90 minutes. Roma showed up as if this tie was still in the balance. United weathered the initial storm pretty well, taking a 1-0 lead into halftime. Then they made a double change where they removed their best defender (Wan-Bissaka) and also brought on their worst defender (Alex Telles). That was ultimately the difference in a 3-2 loss.
Three days later United went to Aston Villa needing a win to guarantee them a top four finish and, technically, keep their title hopes alive.2 They proceeded to do what they had been doing for the past two months. Play a lackluster first half, then turn it on in the second half and blow their opponents away. Three points in the bag and qualification to the Champions League now secure.
Two days later they had to face Leicester. Due to the schedule Solskjaer had to make 10 changes and essentially field a reserve team that wasn’t good enough to beat Leicester. Ok who cares. But by not beating Leicester, City were now champions.
You can no longer finish first, you’ve already qualified for the Champions League. What’s there to play for?
Yes the next was Liverpool and that’s a big one, especially for the fans. You can’t not get up for the Liverpool match. It means a lot to a lot of people. To their credit, United did get up for it. They started very brightly, but then they started making mistakes. They lacked composure at the back and were no doubt missing Harry Maguire. They fought through those mistakes to make it 3-2 but after Mason Greenwood’s chance was cleared off the line they once again never looked like they were pushing themselves to get pick up a level and go all out for the equalizer.
I know, I know. It’s Liverpool. How could you accept losing to them? It’s easy for us to say that but I wouldn’t recommend asking a United player if they would give up their place in the team for the Europa League final in exchange for not losing to Liverpool. You probably won’t like their answer.
That’s not to say that these guys aren’t trying or that they don’t care. They do and they are. But it’s very evident that they’re not going all out and giving their maximum in a game that ultimately means nothing. They’re still humans, Gdansk is in the back of their minds and they don’t want to jeopardize that. All they have to do is look at their captain to see how easy it is to lose.
I know people will say you want to have good momentum heading in to a final but momentum is just a made up word that’s used for a talking point by pundits on TV. Momentum in football doesn’t actually exist. In three days United lost to Arsenal and Istanbul. Based on that they were certainly up against it. Yet three days later they won at Everton and won four games in a row. They didn’t lose again in the league for another three months. The team won five of six matches heading into the League Cup semifinal against Manchester City. Momentum really helped them in that one.
And please, spare me the whole “they’re playing for a place in the team” narrative. Three weeks ago every single United fan could have told you what the starting XI would be in Gdansk assuming everyone was healthy. That hasn’t changed.
Things have looked bleak the past week but I’m not worried. This is a team that is at their best when everyone counts them out.3 They busted their asses the past few months in the midst of a brutal schedule to qualify for the Champions League and try to claw back into a title race.
They achieved that goal with a few games to spare leaving just one more match of importance. That’s the one everyone wants to play in, but there’s other matches that have to be played in the meantime. They’ve been going through the motions, they don’t want to get hurt. But come Wednesday in Gdansk, that’s the match they’ve been waiting for. The match they’ve been saving themselves for. That’s the match where there’s no holding back.
They’ll show up for it.
PS: All of this is based on the assumption that Maguire is fit to play in the final. If he’s not… oh boy, not sure how confident I am. I think United could probably cope with the defensive loss but the attack… it all starts from the back and United have no one that can do what Maguire does in terms of moving the ball up the pitch. Right now it’s looking pretty bleak, but I’ve seen crazier things happen.
Jose Mourinho does
Aka there was something on the line in this match
And now even their own fans are starting to count them out!