It was midnight when Manchester United’s glum squad walked through the car park beneath Fenerbahce’s stadium, toward their unmarked team coach for the night flight back to England.
While the home players, jubilant after their 2-1 win, stopped to speak to journalists and friends by Fenerbahce’s yellow and blue team bus, the track-suited United players said nothing. They’re more reluctant to do so after a defeat and, given they have lost their last five European away games, they’ve become used to not talking.
After one game last season, a usually media-friendly player said: “There’s nothing I can say which will change any of the headlines.” He might be right, but five Tottenham players fronted up to the media after Tuesday’s defeat to Bayer Leverkusen.
A trip to Leverkusen in 2013 was the last great European away display witnessed by United’s diehard band of continental followers. That night, David Moyes’ side put five past the Germans without reply but, more recently, a team once feared around Europe have lost six of their last seven away games, drawing the other.
Since a four-goal first half against Leicester on Sept. 24, United have not played near to their potential and, after 17 games, Jose Mourinho has a worse record than his predecessors Moyes and Louis van Gaal. Unlike his players, the manager was required to speak after the latest defeat and he didn’t mince words.
“We start the game sleeping,” Mourinho said after United conceded yet another — admittedly spectacular — early goal. “I know we have a problem away from home [and] it’s hard to play without two proper central defenders.”
Mourinho went on to describe his team as “fragile” and criticised them for not being stronger mentally: “Our problem started in our global attitude where [Fenerbahce] were playing like it was a Champions League final and we were playing like a summer friendly.”
United have problems and you don’t need to look at the Premier League table, where they lie eighth, to see that. The team are not playing well enough, often enough and, to compound matters, there have injuries to contend with. The latest saw Paul Pogba limp off on Thursday.
Mourinho, who wanted a central defender as his fifth signing in the summer, is currently without centre-backs Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling. Meanwhile, Phil Jones, who has been injured and is yet to play this season, had his confidence battered by Van Gaal’s football.
One of the biggest weaknesses of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era has been the loss of characters from the dressing room. Age was one reason that many venerated veterans moved on, while Van Gaal preferred players he could mould to his exact requirements. The experienced pros he brought in and who questioned him when things went wrong, from Victor Valdes to Bastian Schweinsteiger, were frozen out.
Mourinho has signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the biggest characters in football. He won immediate respect in the dressing room where Wayne Rooney is still the main man, yet the club captain is seldom a starter and not the team’s future. He did score a wonderful goal in Istanbul, though.
United are light on personality and struggled to deal with Fenerbahce’s emotion and aggression. There’s a lack of leaders, a lack of confidence and a lack of any evidence that a new United is emerging from the nadir of three below-par seasons.
The style is more Moyes than Mourinho, who cut a forlorn figure on the bench as his side suffered another defeat. He still doesn’t appear to know his best side or the style in which they should play. Possession, as Van Gaal’s sided showed, is an overrated virtue if few goals come from it.
But then Mourinho’s only been in the job since July and maybe he can’t be expected to know all the answers yet. He clearly needs time and he’ll get it. The alternative of changing managers frequently is not something United want to adopt, yet it’s still baffling how such an expensively-assembled side, stocked with top talent, is so average.
United shouldn’t be being held at home in consecutive matches by sides fighting relegation like Stoke and Burnley, nor should they be losing to Watford or Fenerbahce, whose first goal was scored by Moussa Sow, on loan from an United Arab Emirates-based club. The scorer of the second, Jeremain Lens, was deemed surplus to requirements by Sunderland, who are currently bottom of the Premier League.
The Europa League could offer respite and a back door into the Champions League but, instead, United are arriving in foreign cities with the reputation as the biggest club in the world, only to play the role of Goliath after the latest David has knocked them down.
Sunday’s trip to Swansea is next, another must-win game. United have the ability to respond but they should be better than having to bounce back from adversity every two weeks. However, this is Manchester United in 2016, just the same so far under Mourinho as it was under his two predecessors.
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