Questions as to whether or not Team A can ‘do it’ on a windy night in Stoke aren’t new. But if there’s any team in the Premier League you might ask that of this season, it would surely be Manchester City.
Pep Guardiola has a team of slender magicians who weave their magic over the pitch, casting spells to unlock defences. But can they do it on a windy night in Stoke?
Instinctively, the one team you wouldn’t think to ask that question about are their city rivals. Jose Mourinho has assembled a Manchester United squad where barely any of his players stands under six foot. They are a collection of marvellously Olympian creatures, and over the first few weeks of the season, their physicality as well as their speed and skill was in evidence.
Yet, United have failed to win three Premier League games so far this season. One was literally in Stoke, But it’s their only defeat of the season that actually fits the cliche best: a first loss away to Huddersfield on a windy, rainy day. In fact, all of the four goals United have conceded so far this season have come either away to Huddersfield or away to Stoke City. So the question of whether Manchester United are actually softer than we think, then, shouldn’t be far away.
After trips to vist Liverpool and Benfica were made with a depleted squad, United should probably be cut a little more slack than they’ve been given. But only a little. Their performance at Anfield was, all things considered, a good one: you can question the manager’s tactics and his instructions to his team, but you can’t question the players’ adherence to them, and they came away with the clean sheet which was demanded of them.
Against Benfica, things were less rosy, but an away win in the Champions League is always a good win, and it will save much permutation talk later in the competition, perhaps even allowing the side to rest players for the final group game, which inconveniently falls just days before the first Manchester derby of the season.
But against Huddersfield on Saturday afternoon, United showed that they couldn’t, on this occasion, perform to a level which could even produce a draw against a highly-motivated Huddersfield Town on a wet, windy day in Yorkshire.
That’s a little bit odd.
If you were asked to trust any team in the league to overcome such an obstacle and at least grind out a point in those circumstances this season it would surely have to be United you’d choose. Sure, Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini were injured, and Eric Bailly’s absence is what, ultimately, led to Victor Lindelof’s presence on the pitch, but Mourinho’s side just didn’t seem up for it: and that’s exactly the criticism which would be levelled at a side like, say, Manchester City or Liverpool if they’d lost in the same way. It was a windy day in Huddersfield and both of United’s regional rivals fit the cliche. So why not United?
There’s no easy answer for Jose Mourinho. Any solution to the problems United faced will have to include what we’d normally think of as excuses – injuries, midweek European commitments – but would also include much more damning things like player motivation and even summer recruitment, given that part of the problem seemed to be that United didn’t have adequate cover for injuries. It’s complex.
But perhaps the most worrying element is still United’s style of play, and more specifically, whether Mourinho’s style has actually contributed to the defeat in some way.
To have to defend for your lives in a game against a big rival and coming away with a point is arguably one of the best team-bonding exercises around. The sense of achievement, the perfect organisation and the feeling that you’re all in it together is thrilling. A 0-0 draw at Anfield sometimes comes under that bracket, even if this time it felt like Liverpool were there for the taking, as both City and Tottenham showed.
But fighting for your life is one thing. It is entirely another to ask some of the best – and most expensive – players in the world to play defence-first football every week, even when it’s Huddersfield away. It must get boring.
And perhaps that’s why, after turgid games away to Liverpool and Benfica, they turned up at Huddersfield on a day when conditions weren’t great and they simply didn’t fancy it. Instead, they seemed to want to arrive, take three points and go home. Fair enough. But they weren’t there to enjoy a game of football, too. Comparisons with City might be too obvious and unfair, but you get the feeling that they can’t help but enjoy playing football right now.
And so maybe, if Mourinho wasn’t so dogmatic in his solid style and allowed for a little more creativity, his players would be more interested in playing even when the conditions weren’t great. But, when you’ve got a third away trip in three games and it’s windy and cold outside, you can see why players would be less motivated to go out and play a cautious, reactive game. If that’s the case, it’s on Mourinho.
Whatever the reason, Manchester United are presently the top six side who – very unexpectedly – can’t ‘do it’ on a windy day at an exposed stadium in the North. That’s not something you’d have predicted from one of the most physical teams that Jose Mourinho has ever assembled.