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22nd Feb 2018

Jose Mourinho’s cautious approach is an admission of something Man United supporters already know

Some United fans were again pointing the finger at the manager on Wednesday night

Simon Lloyd

And so, Manchester United held Sevilla to a goalless draw in the Sánchez Pizjuán on Wednesday night.

Chances were sparse; the football was dull. It was all rather… well, predictable.

In equal measure, so was the social media reaction to the result – or, more specifically, the manner with which it was achieved.

As is often the case when his United side fail to win a game these days, Jose Mourinho was painted as the bad guy. The notion that he is now merely a yesterday’s man, over reliant on his trusty try-not-to-lose-instead-of-win brand of anti-attacking football has been peddled by some for the entirety of his time as United boss. These same accusations, along with all the usual stuff about the parking of his metaphorical bus, were out if force again on Twitter in the hours that followed full-time in Andalusia.

Worryingly for Mourinho (and perhaps partly fuelled by the ongoing Paul Pogba situation) there appears to be an ever-growing number of his own team’s fanbase that seem to be subscribing to these beliefs. Sure, this by no means amounts to a majority of United’s support, but it’s there alright – its presence growing in the social media hysteria that follows every disappointing result.

Make no mistake about it, strip away the over-the-top comments calling for Mourinho to be sacked or imprisoned or offered as a human sacrifice to the gods of attacking football, and some of the questions raised about his cautious approach in certain games might well be valid. This said, a brief look back at the club’s recent and not-quite-as-recent past might serve as timely reminders of where Mourinho’s United actually are.

First, in the context of the game in Seville, a look at Sir Alex Ferguson’s approach to European tournament football should be considered. Despite guiding the club to two Champions League titles during his time at the helm, Ferguson’s side didn’t always pulverise opponents with scintillating, free-flowing attacking football. He knew a thing or two about the value of attempting to stifle opponents in big European and domestic away trips. And while it’s easy to point out that such tactics were reserved for visits to some of the continent’s more stellar clubs, it should also be remembered that he did so with better United sides than the one at Mourinho’s disposal. Playing it safe in a European away game is not something conjured up by their current manager.

Secondly, the bigger picture. In occasionally opting for such low-risk tactics, Mourinho is admitting something most of his club’s supporters (whether they’re prepared to admit it or not) already know: Manchester United aren’t good enough. At least not yet.

Those that criticise him appear to have forgotten how swiftly David Moyes dismantled a title-winning United side, reducing them to a laughing stock in ten months. And while some complain about Mourinho’s United lacking cutting edge and goal threat in major Premier League and Champions League matches, it also seems lost on them that this was even worse against lesser opposition under Louis van Gaal – regularly in home matches.

The turbulent nature of the three years which preceded his appointment meant that Mourinho inherited a broken side. While it may have been hoped that he’d be a quick-fix solution to return United to the top of the English and European game, it’s obviously not perfect yet. Far from it. Even if he has spent a fair bit of money on the squad along the way.

Despite this, the cold, hard, undeniable facts show that slowly, United are moving in the right direction. Their tie with Sevilla is the first time since the Moyes era they have made the Champions League knockout stages. Domestically, although well off Manchester City in the league, they are (for now at least) the best of the rest in the English top flight.

Sure, Mourinho’s methods may not be what’s traditionally considered ‘The United Way’, but for this current side, it’s serving a purpose, regardless of how easy on the eye it may be.