Yesterday’s Manchester United-Sevilla Champions League match was the best game of the knockout rounds thus far. Not because these are two particularly great teams competing—they both are pretty bad—nor because they played especially well—the game was largely awful. No, this match was great for pretty much one reason only: because it is always a treat to see an entitled club like United and a wildly arrogant manager like José Mourinho lose in embarrassing fashion.
Sometimes, a big Premier League club will meet one of the second-tier La Liga teams in European competition and come away with a loss. EPL-centric followers of the sport are often shocked by the result while fans with a better understanding of Spanish soccer are much less surprised, knowing that there is much more talent in Spain outside of the Big Three in Madrid and Barcelona than outsiders give the country credit for. This, however, was not one of those instances.
If United’s manager, players, and fans came into this tie against Sevilla expecting to progress over a much inferior opponent, they would’ve been right to do so. This Sevilla bunch is nothing special. They do have a couple really good players, most prominently in the form of central midfielders Steven Nzonzi and Éver Banega, but surrounding those players are primarily a bunch of unreliable, mediocre talents. Sevilla are pretty good at taking the ball from the midfield and moving it forward into dangerous areas, but they have zero consistent creators or scorers in attack and can’t defend to save their lives. United have oodles more talent all over the pitch, have a more experienced and embedded manager (former AC Milan and Fiorentina manager Vincenzo Montella has only been on the job for a few months after Eduardo Berizzo got canned midway through his first season at Sevilla), and on paper should’ve skated to victory. Instead, Sevilla booted United by an aggregate score of 2-1 that easily could’ve been worse.
The one thing you can traditionally expect from a Mourinho team is that they’ll be good at keeping safe in defense. Yet United were anything but safe defensively yesterday, or in the tie generally. Sevilla took a whopping 21 shots at the Old Trafford goal in the match and created danger easily and with regularity. And this was after a first-leg showing that saw Sevilla dominate United, taking 25 shots to United’s six and only failing to score out of rotten luck.
Because Sevilla can’t stop a bloody nose themselves, United too got more than their share of threatening attacks—a fact borne out by Romelu Lukaku being the best Red Devil on the pitch. Though their lack of urgency and coordination when going forward prevented them from inspiring much fear in Sevilla’s defenders. This resulted in a largely ugly first half in which both teams doddered with the ball, not doing much of anything interesting, until one of them turned it over to the opponent for a decent looking counter that a poor touch or pass or shot would ruin. It made for pretty bleak viewing, with only the promise of feasting on a big plate of schadenfreude, should Sevilla stop fucking around and actually finish a move or two to put the sword to United’s neck, keeping our interest.
To change the match’s dynamics, both managers looked to their benches to switch things up. Paul Pogba, the midfield genius who not that long ago was the most expensive transfer of all time, was United’s ace on the sidelines who came on and ... did nothing. Instead, the game’s key substitute was French forward Wissam Ben Yedder, who cost Sevilla one-tenth of what United paid for Pogba. Just two minutes after coming onto the pitch he succeeded where the rest of Sevilla’s attackers had failed during both legs of the tie by capitalizing on a good attack with a goal:
After the opener, it only took another couple minutes for Ben Yedder to grab another goal to give his team a commanding 2-0 lead:
For no cognizable reason other than Mourinho’s inflexible managing style, which sees him treat every “big” game as an opportunity to show off his unyielding commitment to conservatism, United never really tried to attack Sevilla with full gusto until after they’d gone down a goal or two. This tactic of refusing to go at such a weak defense was proven to be just as stupid as it seemed when United found it so easy to carve open Sevilla during the final 15 minutes of yesterday’s match. With a little more composure and luck, they really could’ve scored the three goals they’d have needed to make it through to the next round during their late flurry. Lukaku flubbed one golden chance, scored another, and United as a whole found just about enough opportunities to rescue themselves from humiliation. This necessary recklessness in attack did gift Sevilla a few great chances to score the third goal, and anyway the newly invigorated United’s late-game strategy was too little, too late. Sevilla held on for the 2-1 win that, while far from being impressive, was absolutely deserved.
Losing such an eminently winnable Champions League tie as this is unquestionably an embarrassment for a club of United’s stature and wealth, but it isn’t the cataclysmic sort of which Red Devils fans have become all too familiar with in the post-Fergie era. United are still pretty much locks for a top four place in the Prem, are still filthy rich, and remain in possession of a very promising young core around which a trophy-contending team could certainly be built.
(Lukaku may have come in for criticism for a good chunk of the season but he’s actually been great more often than not in what is an isolated, difficult role he’s been asked to play; Pogba too has caught hell from fans and has legitimately struggled of late, but he still has all the talent in the world; Eric Bailly was a brick wall in this match, as he is every time he steps on the pitch when healthy; Alexis Sánchez hasn’t quite hit the ground running in Manchester but he should improve considerably given more time and better-fitting tactics, and even if he doesn’t United still have Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford waiting in the wings; David de Gea is the best keeper in the world, and the only thing to be worried about there is whether Real Madrid have the will and working fax machines needed to take him home. On the whole, this roster is perfectly fine, in the short and long terms.)
That said, there are definitely concerns about the direction of the club. Mourinho is wrapping up his second season in Manchester and it doesn’t feel like he’s really built anything like a foundation from which to grow. United aren’t particularly good at breaking down the deep defenses they face most often in league play, they don’t have a noteworthy counterattack with which to attack their ball-dominant peers when defending deep, nor are they even that sound defensively. United lack a recognizable, consistent style of play in contrast to their main rivals in England and around Europe, and they aren’t currently set up in a way that maximizes the talents of their best players. If Jesse Lingard is the only outfield player on a roster that includes the likes Pogba, Lukaku, Alexis, Martial, and Rashford who can come away from the season feeling good about how things have gone for him, then something is wrong.
There’s been talk for a while now that Mourinho might be Past It. That his once-revolutionary defensive style no longer reigns supreme in a game that now most consistently rewards teams who do their best work with the ball as opposed to against it. There’s probably a bit of truth to that notion, though not so much as to remove Mourinho from his status as one of the best managers in the sport. Even if Mourinho is no longer among the very best of his profession, he’s still right there with the very good. And very good, when armed with a great squad, should be enough to win.
What is inarguable, though, is that performances like today’s loss to a sorry Sevilla give ammunition to those who do wish to paint Mourinho as a washed has-been coasting on reputation and entertaining but meaningly press conference boasts, and to those who get their jollies from claiming United are going the way of Liverpool—in short, those who find in this ribbing of two of soccer’s most deliciously mockable institutions unending amounts of delight. And this, we can all agree, is most certainly all to the good.