#JDSays: Reality bites Manchester United and eternal scapegoat Fellaini

John Dykes John Dykes

Inconsistency strikes again for Jose Mourinho’s ultra-defensive Manchester United side and all is not well in the dressing room, says John Dykes.

It could only happen to Manchester United.

Just days after the explosion of delight and pundit-baiting that Saturday’s win over Liverpool brought, the United narrative is now one of bitter recrimination and finger-pointing.

Striker Romelu Lukaku has accused teammates of going missing and the fans have wasted no time in excoriating their favourite target, Marouane Fellaini. While the manager… well, the manager simply shrugged his shoulder and said, it’s not the first time United have been knocked out of this competition on their home turf. In fact, noted the Self-Promoting One, I did it to them twice. Not really what fans of the three-time European champions wanted to hear at that point.

So, let’s analyse those three strands of the fallout from United’s European exit.

Lukaku spoke from the heart and claimed to be reflecting the mood in the dressing room. He personally will have been frustrated after yet again having to feed on scraps up front as United spluttered and stalled. It’s always risky to point a finger at teammates but it’s by no means the first time this has happened. He will have to deal with their response himself.

I feel sympathy for Fellaini. No sooner was he named in the starting lineup than the social media critics started to spit invective at the Belgian. As it turned out, he did little wrong in the game, but he would have cringed inwardly at the roar of approval when he was replaced by Paul Pogba. As it turned out, Pogba looked off his game and the match itself was lost during the time he was on the pitch.

The damage, however, has already been done to Fellaini, United’s eternal scapegoat. Fellaini is a unique footballer, all elbows, hair and rangy endeavor. He lacks finesse, he is often used as a battering ram and he is an obvious target for critics as well as long-balls from the back. However, every manager he has played for values him highly and he will most likely make a big-money move to another European top club in the near future and there is a decent chance he will become a World Cup winner this summer with Belgium.

Of course, it’s not so much Fellaini the footballer who attracts all this criticism. It’s Fellaini in his undeserved and unwanted role as the embodiment of Jose Mourinho’s tactical ethos and brutally defensive mindset that leads to him receiving such excessive abuse.

Mourinho was overly-cautious in the first-leg of the tie in Spain. Sevilla shoud have won the game comfortably. However, the Portuguese manager returned to England, where United were traveling very nicely indeed: come-from-behind wins over Crystal Palace and Chelsea, continued FA Cup success and then that superbly-orchestrated win over the old enemy at the weekend. So, why start a home game in front of a raucous Old Trafford with a midfield lacking in creativity, with Rashford switched to the right to accommodate an out-of-form Sanchez?

For the umpteenth time this season, United lacked drive and invention. What possession they had they squandered, along with a chance or two. Sevilla’s Ever Banega, meanwhile, showed them what can be done with a bit of quality on the ball in midfield as he set his team’s tempo and helped Sevilla achieve control of the game against a manager who craves precisely that, and often seems to achieve it by surrendering possession of the ball.

This, for me, lies at the heart of United’s problem and also explains why their fans can swing so wildly from pole to pole in terms of their response to results. If you are the ultimate pragmatist and insist that the result is the be all and end all, then this is what happens. Unlike fans of Manchester City to an extent, but more accurately Liverpool and Spurs, there is nothing else to fall back on when a game is lost.

Because Mourinho’s United often win but rarely do so in style, fans can’t shrug off the disappointment and say, well at least we played some nice football. I wrote last week that despite the defeat to Juventus, Spurs under Mauricio Pochettino are still on an upward curve. It’s harder to make such a sweeping claim about United when they are capable of twice being found sorely wanting by the fifth-best team in Spain.

Under Mourinho, United have spent something like 300 million pounds and are now sitting relatively comfortably in second place in the league. They are the bookmakers’ favourites to win the FA Cup. Should they achieve both of those targets, this will go down as a successful season in many ways. Yet the scars from Tuesday night at Old Trafford will take a long time to heal and one suspects they will re-open on occasion too as long as the club continues with its current policy of short-term fixes in terms of player acquisition and with Mourinho’s uber-pragmatic mindset calling the shots.