Manchester United under Jose Mourinho are in danger of becoming what Liverpool used to be before Jurgen Klopp arrived: A club riding on their glorious history and struggling to live up to the memories of it after another frustrating night in Europe, writes
Manchester United’s matchday programme, United Review, ran a feature on the greatest games between United and Juventus ahead of this match against the Italian champions and it must have left home fans dewy eyed at the melancholic memories of what used to be — on a day when the modern United failed to get anywhere near the level of their predecessors.
Games against Juve over the years have been memorable and hard fought. United’s happiest memories include a famous 3-0 victory in Turin in 2003, inspired by Ryan Giggs. Then there was a dramatic 3-2 group stage win at Old Trafford in 1997 with Scholes, Giggs and Sheringham the stars, and of course a 3-2 away win in the semi-final in 1999 when Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke and, finally, Andy Cole, took United from 2-0 down to 3-2 up on a remarkable night.
That season, the treble season of course, remains perhaps the greatest in United’s history and it’s hard not to sigh and despair at how far United have slipped since those heady days on yet another day when they failed to truly compete with the best.
You could say it is a shadow cast by Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement which blinds us all to the qualities of the current team and causes critics to overreact to nights like this, but there was United history long before Sir Alex arrived.
Supporters here were also reminded of the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983-84 when, up against Michel Platini and Paolo Rossi, United were underdogs and ultimately couldn’t get past the Serie A giants. But the words of United manager Ron Atkinson that night go the core of Manchester United’s identity, because he simply told his players: ‘Run your guts out.’ It didn’t work out in the end, of course, and United were gallant 3-2 losers on a night when they gave everything and handed the great Juve a scare, but the Stretford End doesn’t mind a gallant loser; what it cannot bear is a team which shows no desire and provides no entertainment.
That’s why the famous ‘attack, attack, attack’ chant is heard every week at Old Trafford and why Mourinho, despite all his history of winning trophies and all his coaching heritage, remains under pressure in an increasingly difficult season.
United’s legends of the past haven’t been shy in reminding people that they did far better than the current side in their day — much to Mourinho’s constant fury. So, the half-time comments were far from friendly.
It was a very conservative and lethargic first half with no cohesion,” was Rio Ferdinand’s verdict. “They were outclassed. Watching it you feel a little bit embarrassed,” was that of Paul Scholes. “There’s a big gulf in class,” added Owen Hargreaves.
It’s another sign of how the weight of history, once United’s biggest advantage, is now starting to become an ever-bigger burden as comparisons between past and present are made pointedly, week-in, week-out. The reality is we don’t just judge Manchester United on how well they perform against Juventus on a big European night - we judge them against the measure set down in the past by Bobby Charlton, Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Andy Cole. Is that fair? Perhaps not, but Liverpool have been through that in the dark days since their last league title and it’s part and parcel of football.
Mourinho must have known that when he arrived at Old Trafford, but he no doubt believed that with his record the history of United would be a weight used to batter opponents, not to hold down his own players like it seems to be at the moment.
It is now five years since Manchester United won the Premier League (it will soon be six) and 10 years since they won the Champions League (it will soon be 11) and the pressure is only going to increase.
Maybe Juve can empathise. They haven’t been European champions since 1996, a remarkable statistic when you think about the quality of their teams, but they certainly have a better opportunity to end that run in 2019 than United, who now face a battle to reach the knockout stages.
The second half at Old Trafford was better, you could sense the home crowd was desperate to roar their team on, and they did just that when United began to press harder and force their way forward. The quality wasn’t always there, but the energy and intention was at a higher level and you wonder why on earth United cannot show that kind of mentality from the start of matches more often.
Paul Pogba’s effort which cannoned off the upright in the second half and hit goalkeeper Wojiech Szczesny before going for a corner summed up what could have been achieved if United had believed in themselves, but in some ways it only added to the frustration that Mourinho’s tentative tactics are a problem and a feeling that the club’s current heroes are still missing something, that extra bit of spirit and magic which was deep in the make-up of so many heroes of the past.
It’s going to take a big turnaround for that feeling to go away.