Blame Mourinho's tactics, but don't overlook the spineless, lethargic showing of some of his players
More often than not, in sport you get what you deserve.
On Tuesday night at Old Trafford, that's exactly how it played out for Manchester United.
The Sevilla side which dumped them out of the Champions League currently sit fifth in La Liga, 27 points behind leaders Barcelona and with a goal difference of minus six. West Ham have managed as many goals in the Premier League as they have in the Spanish top flight and they are weaker this season than they were when Leicester City beat them at the last 16 stage a year ago.
Yet, for all this, United afforded them the kind of respect you might expect when facing a genuine European heavyweight - not a team who considers Stephen Nzonzi as one of its key players.
Sevilla had looked the likelier to score in the goalless draw in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan three weeks ago, but still, as unthreatening as United had been that night, at least they had returned to Manchester knowing they had an advantage. In that sense, Mourinho has been partially vindicated. Surely, a Big European Night At Old Trafford™ would help carry United to the quarter finals...
And in truth, the early signs had been promising. Boosted by the weekend win against Liverpool (a result and performance that seems all the more miraculous now), the opening few minutes had seen the home side play with tempo. Romelu Lukaku, one of few United players to come out of the night exempt from any real blame, had made Simon Kjaer's attempt to shoulder charge him off the ball look almost laughable in the third minute. Having brushed the Dane aside, he exchanged a one-two with Jesse Lingard before blazing over from the edge of the area. His shot was wild, but the ease with which United created an opening was encouraging and should have set the tone for the rest of the game.
It didn't. As time went on, the tempo slowed. United's midfield settled into taking three or four touched when two would have been suffice. Sevilla got their foot on the ball and were afforded the kind of time and space that Jürgen Klopp's players could have only dreamed of only days ago. Nervy defending from their hosts even presented Vincenzo Montella's side with a couple of opportunities.
By half-time, the only other opportunity United had mustered in the first 45 minutes had fallen to Marouane Fellaini - awkwardly thrashing the ball in the vague direction of the Sevilla goal shortly before half-time, forcing a relatively straightforward save from Sergio Rico.
After the break came more of the same. Paul Pogba eventually replaced Fellaini, but inherited his knack of misplacing even the most basic of passes. The atmosphere slowly died; the crowd became increasingly anxious.
Then, with less than 20 minutes to play, United got what they'd been asking for. Ben Yedder, on as a sub only minutes earlier, was played through and slotted the ball into the corner of David De Gea's goal. With many of the home support already heading for the exits, his scruffy second a matter of minutes later ensured there'd be plenty of bare Old Trafford seats by full-time. Lukaku would snatch one back, but it was already much, much too late.
Naturally, fingers have to be pointed at the manager. Jose Mourinho quite obviously got things wrong in both legs against Sevilla, be it his unnecessarily cautious tactics or contentious team selections. But while United supporters are right to ask questions of their manager's approach to the game, surely the most disappointing element of their Champions League exit has to be the way in which the players handled the situation.
By the time they eventually conceded, the writing was on the wall. A few half chances aside, genuine goal threat had dried up and United's players seemed content to just pass the ball sideways in areas that couldn't hurt their opponents. Despite the clear exasperation of the home support and repeated cries of 'attack, attack, attack' that would occasionally rise up, there was an obvious unwillingness to take a risk, to try and play a killer pass.
This was best summed up by the first goal itself, or rather the 50 seconds of United's possession that preceded it. 15 passes, all within their own half, before Antonio Valencia's gave the ball away with an attempted pass down the line. Sevilla seized the opportunity and landed the knock-out blow.
"Some players were hiding," Lukaku later said in his post-match interview. Although he's since moved to clarify this was not a reference to his teammates' performances, it's easy to see why so many people interpreted it that way. For all the tactical flaws that were evident in both games with Sevilla, this was a reminder that too many of United's current squad - for all the money spent in assembling it - simply don't have the kind of mentality that some of their predecessors had.
Watching United strum meek, ineffective sideways passes in and out of their own defensive third was a throwback to the very worst of the Louis Van Gaal era, but was also a far cry from Rio Ferdinand's anecdote of his first training session at the club. "Pass the f***ing ball forward," Roy Keane had screamed at him after opting for a safe pass. Taking the easy option simply wasn't tolerated at United then, not in training sessions, and definitely not in must-win Champions League matches on your own patch.
As right as it is to blame Mourinho, the gutless, lethargic showing from most of his players shouldn't be overlooked. In a season-defining match, there was a desperate lack of urgency from many wearing red shirts until the damage was irreversible. For all the manager's faults with the way in which the team had been set up, these are problems that can only be addressed by the players themselves.
And perhaps it's this, not the manager, that is the bigger issue for this current United side: too many of their players have a tendency to go "hiding" when the going gets tough.