A one-all draw overnight away to Anderlecht leaves Manchester United with work to do in the return leg of their Europa League quarter-final at Old Trafford next week.
Sixteen shots on goal should have provided a two or three-goal goal buffer that meant the tie could be closed down. But that didn’t happen.
Jose Mourinho stated almost immediately that he puts the blame for the draw squarely at the feet of his attackers, who were lazy and profligate again. It’s obvious that United are short of goals, other than Zlatan Ibrahimovic no one is consistently banging them in.
The great United teams had an Ibra equivalent – Ruud van Nistelrooy, Dwight Yorke or Andy Cole. But it was the consistency of the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, and especially Paul Scholes that ensured the goals kept coming when the strikers had an occasional off day.
And that was an integral part of United’s long runs of success.
But Sir Alex Ferguson pointed out a number of times that all great teams have a great spine. All of his teams had great scoring talent and midfield dominance. Above all, though, they had a great defence, centred around players and partnerships of the quality of Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce or Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
I don’t pretend to understand Mourinho’s mind games, and they work more often than they don’t. But United’s failure to reach the level of Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham this year has got to have more to do with their lack of truly world-class defenders than it has a lack of attacking quality.
Great teams of the past, such as Don Revie’s Leeds, Liverpool of the 1970s and ’80s, Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, George Graham’s boring Arsenal, and Mourinho’s Chelsea sides have been able to defend leads. It was enough to get ahead and then great defenders would close the game down, job done.
With long seasons, multiple cup runs and fixture congestion, those teams often nicked a lead in a tricky European tie, or a League Cup replay, and settled for that result. This United defence simply can’t do that.
It is indicative that not one of them is courted by any of the other great teams in England or in Europe. Real Madrid and Barcelona would have loved to have prised Vidic or John Terry away, but that doesn’t apply to Chris Smalling or Phil Jones.
David de Gea may well go to Real Madrid eventually – to play in his home country must be a huge drawcard. But the standard of defence that has played in front of him throughout his time at United must be a contributing factor as well.
Peter Schmeichel was a brilliant keeper, but he had one hell of a defence in front of him.
The end of the season will see United linked to every attacking midfielder between here and Timbuktu, but it would be great if they could manage to lure a player of Mats Hummels’ quality at long last.
Then Mourinho could justify lots of boring 1-0 wins, instead of angrily remonstrating about infuriating 1-1 draws.