‘Can they score? They always score…’ Remember that? It seems an age ago now. These days, no-one thinks Manchester United will score, not even their own fans. Long before the final whistle sounded here, whole blocks of them they were on their way home. It wasn’t as if Manchester United were losing, either – there was all to play for, still.
Yet that confidence had deserted them; the certainty that once made it worth hanging on to the last kick of any tight match at Old Trafford. At the end, there were boos from many of those remaining. Yet this wasn’t a wholly dismal United performance. There was energy in parts, there were enough chances to win. Yet there is something missing.
It is October now and United have not won at home in any competition since the first Friday of the season, in August. As for Jose Mourinho, this is the first time in his career he has failed to win in four consecutive home games anywhere. Stalking the sidelines, dressed darkly and hatchet-faced, he looked as lost as his team does at times. Maybe he is. This is uncharted territory for them all.
Man United 0-0 Valencia: Mourinho’s Champions League.
PLAYER RATINGS, GROUP H TABLE AND MATCH ZONE
Manchester United (4-3-3): De Gea 6, Valencia 6.5, Bailly 6.5, Smalling 6, Shaw 7; Fellaini 5.5, Matic 6, Pogba 5.5; Sanchez 5 (Martial 76, 6), Lukaku 5, Rashford 7
Subs not used: Romero, Lindelof, Mata, Fred, Darmian, McTominay
Manager: Jose Mourinho – 5
Valencia (4-4-2): Neto 6.5; Piccini 6, Garay 7, Gabriel 7, Gaya 5.5; Parejo 6.5, Coquelin 6.5 (Soler 78, 6.5), Kondogbia 7, Guedes 7 (Cheryshev 82); Batshuayi 6 (Gameiro 73, 6), Rodrigo 6.
Subs not used: Domenech, Vezo, Diakhaby, Wass.
Booked: Coquelin, Rodrigo, Parejo, Gaya, Kondogbia
Manager: Marcelino 6.5
Referee: Slavko Vincic 7
They labored against Valencia, plodded in parts, and only really got going late in the game, when the prospect of a goalless home draw undoing so much good work in Switzerland last month became apparent. Having opened Group H with an emphatic win against Young Boys in Bern, this was an excellent chance to build and keep pace with Juventus, their back to back opponents in upcoming Champions League fixtures.
Instead it became another exercise in ineffectuality. United have now played their last four games in three competitions and failed to win in any of them: a draw and a defeat in the Premier League against Wolves and West Ham, a Carabao Cup exit against Derby and now this. It wasn’t the worst, but nor was it the United the locals have been waiting for.
United ran, United competed, but they didn’t impose themselves. Valencia contained them comfortably for the most part and occasionally threatened on the break. One such counter looked so dangerous it brought Mourinho haring from his bench at such pace he almost entered the field of play. It genuinely looked for a moment as if was about to make the last ditch tackle himself.
With five minutes remaining, Anthony Martial was tripped just outside the area by Cristiano Piccini and Marcus Rashford hit the bar with a free-kick from an acute angle. Shortly after, Romelu Lukaku had an excellent chance from a Luke Shaw corner, but couldn’t even get his header on target. That aside, Manchester United’s best moments came in a ten minute spell midway through the second-half.
For the first, Paul Pogba took a free-kick after Alexis Sanchez had been pushed over. He got it over the wall but Neto palmed it out for a corner. Soon after, Pogba played Lukaku through, but the striker had his shot tipped round the far post. At the opposite end, his Belgian compatriot Michy Batshuayi was faring little better. He had a great chance after Piccini sped past Pogba but shot over.
United are missing a certain something; an X factor, a spark that once came so naturally to the home team in this stadium. It wasn’t that they did not want it, more that they have forgotten what it was – the magnificent drive Manchester United teams of past decades brought to nights like this. They look nervous, and the crowd are too.
They were eerily quiet in spells, so much so that the players voices could be heard above the murmur. In the stands, reminders of better days: Gary Neville and David Beckham in the nicer seats, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand in the television studio. Beckham will have chosen this over Paris Fashion Week with his wife. He’s hardly going to silence the most scurrilous whispers about their relationship like that. Who goes to Old Trafford for fun these days?
And, of course, the Manchester United of old didn’t get it right every game, either. They were not always perfect, no matter what the memory tells us. Yet those United sides had verve, had spirit, had flair that comes from confidence. And that was what was missing from Mourinho’s edition on Tuesday night, for all their endeavour: the swagger of old.
Occasionally, Rashford would show Valencia’s defenders a pair of heels and the place would come alive – but United did not get much return on their effort. If anything, on the odd occasion when Valencia got through they appeared to have greater knowledge of the direct route to goal.
There were odd signs of life. Rashford cut inside on the left showing real pace and hit a low shot, but it went just wide. But that was after 14 minutes and was followed by a lengthy spell of inactivity save a quite ludicrous shot attempt from 40 yards plus by Bailly that had little on its side bar mystery. A few minutes later, he took a whack to the throat from Rodrigo which continued to cause him trouble for the rest of the first-half.
It was quite a physical game with six Valencia players in the book by the end. Time was, a Mourinho team would have relished the physicality of a battle like that, but even that is no longer their forte. They look like a team desperately in need of inspiration; Mourinho a manager struggling to locate his ability to inspire.