There was more than a frustrated pitch to the groans that emanated from the south stand at Old Trafford on Sunday as Manchester United successfully tied themselves in knots against the Premier League’s bottom club.
They were much more agonised in tone and that stemmed less from the knowledge that Jay Rodriguez’s 73rd minute goal for West Bromwich Albion was about to hand Manchester City the title - as painful as that was - as the understanding that this was not simply a bad day at the office, an isolated incident on an excruciating afternoon.
As Alexis Sanchez, head buried in his chest, ran into his umpteenth roadblock and Paul Pogba delivered another apathetic performance before Jose Mourinho put everyone out of their misery by withdrawing the France midfielder 13 minutes into the second half, United supporters had concluded well before the end that this was a script they have long wearied of reading.
When did United last play well? Not for 20 minutes here or 20 minutes there, one half here, one half there. When did Mourinho’s side last put an opposition side through the ringer for 70 minutes, 80 minutes, let alone a full game? When did they last look like a confident, cohesive, coherent unit from the first whistle to the last?
Since Christmas, they have been lurching from one game to the next in a fog of muddled thinking and mediocrity punctured by the occasional highlight or fleeting flourish when the obvious talent they do possess wins out despite the system and structure. Can anyone say with any confidence what sort of team might show up against Bournemouth on Wednesday or Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley three days later?
The second half against Everton on Jan. 1 was very good, the first was not. The second period against Chelsea was pretty good, the first half was not, at least until Romelu Lukaku pulled a goal back in the 39th minute against the run of play. The first halves at home to Liverpool and Swansea City offered optimism, the final 35 minutes at Crystal Palace was an impressive salvage operation after lamentable beginnings, a familiar tale to the Manchester derby with its wretched opening first 45 minutes and dramatic 16-minute second half renaissance.
As for the wretched lows – West Brom joined a canon already comprising Tottenham away, Newcastle away, Sevilla home and away and a deathly dull goalless draw at home to Southampton over the past four months. There were victories against Derby, Huddersfield and Brighton in the FA Cup but the performance for long periods in those games was in keeping with a side perennially trying to force the issue, short on wit, imagination and an obvious game plan.
The Premier League dictates that United are the second best team in the country but, beyond directing people to the points column, it is hard to make a persuasive argument that Mourinho’s side are better than Liverpool and Spurs below them. Look a little further down and can they even be said to display the sort of unity, order and team spirit that so clearly permeates Sean Dyche’s Burnley, for example?
The West Brom shambles was as shocking for its lack of fight as its dearth of quality. City are swashbuckling, sure, but does anyone honestly believe that brand of football can be played without a sound structure underpinning it, in which every player has a very clear sense and understanding of their positions, roles and duties?
Sanchez and Pogba are by no means the only problem – perhaps only Jesse Lingard, a second half substitute, emerged with any semblance of credit among the outfield players on Sunday – but they, more than anybody, embody the aimlessness that has rigidly taken hold.
The hope for United supporters was that Sanchez and Pogba’s star turns in the second half of last weekend’s 3-2 derby win would be a platform on which to kick on. But West Brom represented several steps back, their performances entirely in keeping with recent displays in which neither has seemed to know what they are supposed to be doing. Sanchez at least puts himself about and anyone who has watched the Chilean over time will know that he has not been averse in his career to leading himself down blind allies but he is running into trouble far too often when a simple look up, as evidenced against City, would do him the world of good.
Pogba? If he wants to stay at United - and the efforts of his agent, Mino Raiola, whom Pep Guardiola has claimed offered City Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in January, suggest exit routes have been explored – he has a funny way of showing it. He reeked of indifference against West Brom, as he has in many games since the turn of the year, and Mourinho, for one, is making no attempt to hide his irritation with a player for whom the message is clearly not getting through.
He started in his preferred position on the left of a midfield three on Sunday against a team with only one away win in 16 league matches before then. So what was his excuse this time? In a team of strangers, he looks the loneliest and most lost of the lot.