Loss to Juventus suggests Manchester United are in search of their soul
MANCHESTER, England -- The front cover of the Manchester United match programme for their Champions League clash against Juventus billed the game as a "Match for the Ages." It is a rivalry that stretches back more than 40 years to the first of their 12 meetings before this Group H encounter, and from a United perspective at least, their story with Juventus has traced the peaks and troughs of their development and status as a European heavyweight.
When United have fallen short against the Italian giants, as in 1984 and 1996, they have looked a million miles from being where they want -- and expect -- to be. Victories in 1997 and 1999 coincided with a United on the rise -- the 1999 win teed up the Champions League final against Bayern Munich a month later -- and the gulf between the two clubs was evident when Sir Alex Ferguson's team scored three times without reply in February 2003 in Turin.
Ferguson always regarded Juventus as the benchmark for his players during the 1990s, but when the historians reflect on the latest encounter between the two sides -- a 1-0 win for Juve settled by Paulo Dybala's first-half goal on Tuesday at Old Trafford -- it will go down as a low point for United. Juventus are now the team in the ascendancy. United, meanwhile, are a club and team in search of its soul.
There are many faults and problems, but some are much harder to solve than others. Jose Mourinho produced another list of complaints and observations after this defeat -- United's fifth in 13 games this season -- but the reality is that his team is not very good, and the problems run deep.
Juventus offer a useful measuring stick because they are where United want to be, and Mourinho is never one to miss an opportunity to tell whomever is listening that he is working with at least one hand tied behind his back. He uses the other to direct three fingers at whichever group of rival supporters is taunting him.
"We played against one of the biggest candidates to win the Champions League, and we did the best we could, especially in the second half," Mourinho said, sounding like the manager of a lower-league minnow.
"How far are we behind Juventus? Juventus have won seven titles in a row, [reached] two Champions League finals in the last four years and are not happy with what they have.
"They want more, they want more. They wanted [Cristiano] Ronaldo, they wanted [Leonardo] Bonucci, they go for the best players in the world.
"They are a big club with a past and a big desire to have a big future. They put everything there to try to win not just the Champions League but the Treble.
"To get to Juventus level, Real Madrid level, Barcelona level, Manchester City level -- how do you reach this level?"
When asked if money is the solution, Mourinho delivered another dig into the ribs of his bosses.
"Yes, but it's not easy," he said. "Most of the quality players belong to top teams, so we work with what we have."
"Working with what we have" is damning his players with faint praise, but it is difficult to find any room for Mourinho to be optimistic with his current squad.
When Ferguson measured his team against Juventus two decades ago, he was assessing the progress and maturity of the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. There was a trajectory, and it was in an upward direction, but Mourinho's players are a group without focus. Time will tell whether that is down to a loss of faith in their manager or simply a lack of quality in too many areas.
Right now, it looks like a combination of both.
United lack a leader or a collective energy. Juventus have both in abundance. They look like a team that knows what it is doing and plays with assurance.
United? They are a mishmash of players clinging on (Chris Smalling, Ashley Young, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic), some who seem to be hoping to pass through (Paul Pogba, maybe even David De Gea), the over-hyped and unproductive (Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial), and the badly managed (Marcus Rashford). None of them should be accused of not trying, but too many of them resemble one half of an unhappy marriage, sulking or struggling under the management of Mourinho.
It is not a healthy situation. Even the club's supporters found it hard to get behind the team as Juventus dominated and the likes of Lukaku, Martial and Matic got worse with every missed chance or misdirected pass. But that's what happens when the soul has taken a pounding: Everything feels like an effort. It is an effort to watch this United team, and it looks like the players are having the same battle motivating themselves on the pitch.
Rio Ferdinand, a Champions League winner with United in 2008, noted the lack of impetus or edge from his old team as they drifted to defeat.
"Every single Juventus player will come off the pitch and say, 'Wow, I was under no pressure today,'" he said. "The team at home were playing like the away team. Juventus were pressing them rather than the other way around.
"If I went out on a home game, and I was told to sit back and retreat, I'd be shocked.
"I'd be thinking, 'Really? This is Manchester United.' If that's the tactics they've been told before they left the dressing room, then I'd be shocked."
Mourinho has never sent his teams out to play the swashbuckling football that United fans demand, but with the players he has at his disposal, damage limitation is increasingly looking like the only option. He can demand money for new signings and reinforcements, but he can't buy a new soul.