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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Tardy timekeepers Manchester United must shed can’t-do mentality

whatever United’s problems getting their bus to their stadium, Jose Mourinho is far more adept at throwing his players under it

Jose Mourinho criticised his Manchester United players for showing a lack of heart and desire in the 0-0 draw against Crystal Palace. Reuters
Jose Mourinho criticised his Manchester United players for showing a lack of heart and desire in the 0-0 draw against Crystal Palace. Reuters

Under other circumstances, the temptation would be to reflect on one of this season’s great Uefa Champions League results, beating Juventus in Turin, an emphatic derby defeat and an insipid stalemate with Crystal Palace and pose a question: which Manchester United will turn up on Tuesday?

Yet there is a more pressing issue before kick off: when will Manchester United turn up? They could complete a ridiculous hat-trick. Late to arrive for the Valencia and Juventus games, will they get to Old Trafford in time for any of their Champions League matches? If the statue of Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton celebrates United’s holy trinity, this could be an unholy trinity of incompetence.

Were United otherwise a smoothly-functioning club, once could be a curiosity borne of misfortune, the Manchester traffic and England’s incessant, unending roadworks. Twice is not. Occasionally, off-field events can become symbolic, reflecting a wider malaise. United, where the default answer to anything is “no”, appear to have developed a can’t-do mentality that extended to an inability to reaching their own ground.

Understandably, football clubs tend to be judged on the visible and the high profile, on the results procured by players and managers, with powerbrokers sometimes praised or blamed for their input. Everyone else can be obscured. Yet a broader observation is that too many people at United, though not in the rampantly successful commercial department, have not done their jobs to the requisite standard as the wrong type of culture has taken hold.

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Read more:

Andy Mitten: Mourinho's challenge getting Manchester United players to play for him after draw against Crystal Palace

Richard Jolly: Mourinho offers scathing analysis after Manchester United held by Crystal Palace

Premier League team of the week: Son and Sissoko wreak havoc against Chelsea

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If a direct line cannot be traced between mediocrity off the field and on it, both feel contributory factors as, in terms of points and goal difference, United are closer to the foot than the top of the table. Whatever United’s problems getting their bus to their stadium, their manager is far more adept at throwing his players under it. Mourinho said on Saturday that too many had insufficient heart and desire. He told Hristo Stoichkov, a contemporary, that Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Luke Shaw lacked maturity.

So Young Boys’ name makes them feel appropriate opponents. Mourinho has cited statistics to show how many minutes he has granted Rashford while furthering the impression that there is a disconnect between him and too many of the younger generation.

Didier Drogba’s belated retirement, announced last week at the age of 40, marked the end for one of the last of the true Mourinho disciples. Three of the few in the senior squad to escape his censure are battle-hardened, unglamorous senior figures in Ashley Young, Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini.

If Mourinho has difficulties relating to those decades younger than him, he would not be alone. Football management is a rare profession that demands that skill. Some in Ireland felt that Martin O’Neill’s regular stories about Brian Clough rendered him an anachronism. Yet a few years ago, Alex Ferguson started mentioning Johnny Hubbard, whose days of converting penalties for Rangers in the 1950s came before some of the United players’ parents were born. While Mourinho seems to lament a lost era of resolute characters, perhaps it is an illustration of Ferguson’s uniqueness that he continued to get a response from players half a century his junior.

Off the field, some of the rot set in while he continued to accumulate titles. Ferguson was a specialist in camouflaging others’ failings with an incredible winning habit that is proving inimitable. He did so while projecting an aura of omnipotence that brought a contrast with Mourinho marching to Old Trafford a month ago because the bus was stuck in traffic. That was not the Portuguese’s fault but, while he looks for his type of professionalism on the field, United first need to ensure they do not look amateurish off it.