MANCHESTER, England — It was probably the moment when a confused Ander Herrera moved from left-back to right-back early in the second half that it became clear Jose Mourinho had run out of ideas as Manchester United toiled away against Everton. That Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s stoppage time penalty secured a 1-1 draw for United, extending their unbeaten Premier League run to 20 games, should not be allowed to paper over the cracks.
United’s Swedish centre-forward should be nicknamed “The Decorator” due to the number of times he has done exactly that for his manager this season, but the reality is that Mourinho’s team have drawn 10 games during their 20-match unbeaten streak and have been dismally predictable in too many of those stalemates.
In the closing stages of this game, perhaps for the final 25 minutes, United’s tactic was to launch long, high balls into the Everton penalty area, where Ashley Williams and the outstanding Phil Jagielka headed virtually all of them away. It was like watching England slip out of Euro 2016 against Iceland last summer: desperation tactics and a complete absence of class and guile when it was needed the most.
Former Everton midfielder Leon Osman was scathing about United’s approach in his role as a radio summariser at the game.
“Man United ran out of ideas tonight,” Osman said. “They reverted to literally throwing [Marouane] Fellaini up front and trying the long ball.
“There is just no fear factor at Old Trafford anymore.”
Mourinho can point to injuries denying his team the services of Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney in an attacking sense, but Rooney has barely figured for United in recent months, so his absence cannot be cited as a key factor. Beyond that, every other attacking player was fit and available against Everton, so this performance was not down to a lack of options. It was more a case of a lack of imagination and Mourinho paying the price for going into the campaign without adding more than Ibrahimovic to his front line.
Two holding midfielders, Michael Carrick and Fellaini, were deployed in the starting XI, with Herrera handed the No. 10 role usually occupied by Mata or Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Herrera is no No. 10 — to be fair, he’s a better No. 10 than right-back — but Mourinho was making a point to Mkhitaryan by dropping the Armenian after his unimpressive performance in Saturday’s goalless draw against West Bromwich Albion.
When the United manager withdrew Daley Blind at half-time to introduce Paul Pogba, Herrera was then moved to both full-back positions in order to accommodate the £89 million world record signing and enable Fellaini to remain alongside Carrick. It was a bizarre move, especially with Pogba performing dismally again. He may have done better with Herrera’s industry alongside him in midfield, but Mourinho had moved him to the back four instead.
At times, watching Mourinho’s United is like seeing a young child attempting to decipher a Rubik’s Cube. When it becomes problematic, logic goes out of the window. United clearly need a new striker, probably two, and that has been evident since the early months of the season, but what has Mourinho done to make his team more creative? He sold Memphis Depay to Lyon after handing the £25m Dutch winger just one start to prove his worth, and he has run down Rooney to the point of the player becoming little more than a fringe figure.
Tactically, United do not stretch their opponents. Everton did so with Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley, but while United have the pace of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to attack on the counter, they rarely do so. Instead, United pass sideways and allow opponents, particularly at Old Trafford, to sit deep and frustrate.
Mourinho’s sides have nothing to offer as an alternative other than high balls and crosses. Liverpool and Chelsea can turn to the magic of Philippe Coutinho and Eden Hazard to produce a killer pass or goal out of nothing, but United are flat-footed and over-reliant on Ibrahimovic, a 35-year-old whose lack of pace contributes to their predictability.
You can be sure that Mourinho will be given money to spend this summer to change his team and make United more competitive next season, but he will have a lengthy shopping list. Two strikers, a powerful holding midfielder, a quick No. 10 and centre-half confident enough to bring the ball out of the back four are all required, but United aren’t the only club in need of those players and playing in the Europa League will not help their cause when it comes to attracting them.
After dropping two more points, United’s best hope of qualifying for the Champions League now rests on winning the Europa League, something Mourinho conceded after the game when asked if his players can still finish in the top four.
“More difficult, very difficult,” he said. “It is mathematically possible but depends on our opponents. It is an amazing run of 20 matches unbeaten but there are too many draws at home. Because of that we are in the position we are. We build well, but we don’t score enough goals, we don’t kill off enough opponents and at the end of this season, I think we will be punished by that.”
So will he now prioritise the Europa League over the Premier League?
“When we keep losing players, I will have to,” Mourinho replied.
In theory, five wins against opponents they would expect to beat in the Europa League will secure United their passport back to the Champions League, but it will not be as simple as that. Unless Mourinho can inject some adventure and imagination into his team, they will fall foul of Anderlecht in the quarterfinals or another under-estimated team in the semis.
Mourinho needs to remind us all why he is, or was, the Special One because at present, there’s nothing special about his United team.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_