Manchester United 0 Valencia CF 0
David Beckham, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs were among the luminaries in the directors’ box here watching the latest evidence of how far their old team has fallen. Paul Scholes, who seems to know already, was in a television studio in London getting paid for his trouble.
Trouble is what Manchester United are in at the moment, whether former players care to say so publicly or not. This was another quiet night at the erstwhile theatre of dreams, apart from the now obligatory shouts of “attack, attack” midway through the second half. United have not forgotten how to do that, exactly, but they may be in danger of forgetting how to win, it has been so long since they enjoyed the experience. They never did enough to win this game, though at least they were lucky enough not to lose it. Valencia created most of the chances and though they may be happy with a point they could easily have had all three.
Boris Johnson has been taken more seriously than José Mourinho as a team player in recent weeks, but what both shrinking violets have in common is the stubbornness to keep spouting their favourite soundbites long after public opinion has become sceptical. “All my life I have followed certain golden rules,” the Manchester United manager said after a week of turmoil, some of it self-inflicted.
“One of them is that a team can lose matches – that is just part of football – but it must never, ever lose its dignity. I also believe the team is always more important than the individual, and the crest on the chest is more important than the name on the back of the shirt. This is me. This how I work. I want every player to be exhausted at the end of the game because of the hard work they have given for the club.”
Make what you will of Mourinho’s commitment to dignity, Scholes suggested before the game that the manager’s mouth was out of control and expressed surprise he had not been sacked already. The more immediate concern for supporters after two defeats in a row and the worst start to a season for 29 years was for United to put on a better show than they recently phoned in at West Ham, where if any of their players were suffering from exhaustion they managed to hide it quite well. Back came Alexis Sánchez after watching that game in a suit, there was a start for Marcus Rashford and a return for Antonio Valencia as Mourinho attempted to build on the winning start made in Switzerland last month. Minor quibbles over the inclusion of Marouane Fellaini and the omission of Anthony Martial aside, it was about as strong a side as United could put out and, on paper, a reasonably attacking one.
United began stodgily, as might be expected of a side low on confidence, with only Rashford offering glimpses of penetration on the left. Valencia looked like a team prepared to soak up pressure and make the most of occasional opportunities, but as they gradually realised there was not going to be any concerted pressure they began to get forward and show what they could do.
Gonçalo Guedes’s shot was saved by David de Gea before he and José Luis Gayà began to work out that there was almost unlimited space to exploit behind United’s captain, Valencia, on the left. One of several openings created through that channel might have see the away side open the scoring midway through the first half, only for Rodrigo to scuff his shot with the target in clear sight.
United’s efforts to look as stylish in possession were rather less successful, Paul Pogba succeeding only in tripping over the ball following Romelu Lukaku’s dummy, though Rashford did take matters into his own hands shortly afterwards to drill a shot narrowly wide after cutting in from the left.
Rashford’s next attempt was from 25 yards out, which might have been a sign of increasing desperation, though it had nothing on the ludicrous effort from Eric Bailly from near the halfway line just before the interval. An undisguised hoof from more than 40 yards out was never going to trouble Neto in the Valencia goal, and nor did it, though it said something about United’s present state of mind that with every outfield player in front of him the defender could not find a worthwhile pass.
But then again neither could Pogba or Sánchez most times in the first half, that has become United’s problem. No one makes runs, no one sees passes. They are a static side and Mourinho seems powerless to do anything about it.
United did start the second half in lively fashion, with Pogba in particular driving forward with determination, though by the hour mark the game had returned to is original pattern. Pogba brought a save from Neto with a well-struck free-kick, but in open play there was not enough cohesion between United’s midfield three and their front players. When Valencia moved the ball around the pitch they did so much more effectively, even if they, too, lacked a convincing finish.
When Michy Batshuayi skied a decent chance before the end Pogba would have been particularly relieved. Not only did he give the ball away to set up the attack, he was too easily beaten to allow the cross to come in.
If this was an improvement on the West Ham performance the degree was slight. United are still looking for leaders on the pitch.