The goal that sunk Manchester United’s 2017-18 season, or at least a good chunk of it, had been coming. It had been coming over hours of dreadful soccer, first 90 minutes in Spain, then more than 70 at home on Tuesday night.
There were doubts about whether it would come in time. But when it did, 73 minutes into the second leg of United’s Champions League round of 16 tie against Sevilla, there was no doubt it was deserved. And there was no doubt what it meant: Manchester United, the richest club in the world, was crashing out of Europe’s top club competition three rounds too early.
Manchester United, three-time European champion, 20-time English champion, was woefully inadequate.
Super sub! Ben Yedder fires Sevilla ahead at Old Trafford just 2 minutes after coming on the field. pic.twitter.com/33wWm5jYik
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) March 13, 2018
Wissam Ben Yedder’s goal, two minutes after the diminutive striker entered as a substitute, sparked the uproar. It sent United supporters scurrying for Old Trafford exits. It sent United fans around the world into disgruntled fits. It, along with a fluky second goal four minutes later, sent Sevilla through to the quarterfinals, and sent United in search of answers.
But the search, and the fits, and the uproar, and the early train rides home weren’t and aren’t about Ben Yedder’s dagger. They’re about everything that had come before; everything that enabled it. Because United, over 180 minutes, was mostly hopeless. Hopelessly unambitious, yes, but also thoroughly sub-standard.
Three weeks ago, it had put one shot on target in Seville. Tuesday night, United was a bit more enterprising, but not much better. Throughout the two legs, it was alarmingly open at the back, and alarmingly disjointed in midfield, just as it has been all season. It was incapable of seizing control, and incapable of suppressing a skilled but unspectacular Sevilla side.
David De Gea and opponent wastefulness had spared the Red Devils for two-and-a-half hours. But they could only keep the just result at bay for so long. They could only keep the bubbling backlash at bay for so long. And when Ben Yedder struck, twice in four minutes, the flood gates opened.
Unreal! Ben Yedder just beats De Gea for his 2nd goal in 6 minutes of being on the field. pic.twitter.com/JqaXSQPWR7
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) March 13, 2018
There was something fitting about the scene. About an unheralded 5-foot-7 forward, purchased for just over $10 million a few years ago, celebrating in front of 2,000 traveling Spaniards, the ones who had been responsible for the majority of the noise on the night.
About a place, a “Theater,” that once emitted an aura of invincibility instead emitting moans and groans. The Old Trafford faithful were restless. “Attack, attack, attack!” they clamored, but their very reasonable requests often fell on deaf ears.
They have come to expect more than this from a club that can spend and has spent over $100 million on individual players. They have come to expect better from a manager brought in with the express goal of trophies. And not the FA Cup or League Cup. Proper trophies. Trophies the club has won in the past. Trophies the manager has won in the past as well.
But they, and he, have stagnated. They seem to have gone stale. Their second-place standing in the league has masked their many deficiencies. The frustration that reverberated around Old Trafford reflected those deficiencies, and an uneasy feeling about the direction of the club.
Mourinho, after the match, didn’t help matters. As tone-deaf as ever, he boasted about his past successes and belittled a historic club’s history to normalize present-day failures:
— Kris Voakes (@krisvoakes) March 13, 2018
That uneasy feeling isn’t entirely substantiated by facts. It is, if only in small part, fueled by polarizing opinions of Mourinho, by media coverage of him, and by his antics. The real problems at United, in many cases, are difficult for the average fan to put his or her finger on.
But the problems are real. Something isn’t right. Performances like Tuesday’s are the byproducts of them.
In many cases, performances like Tuesday’s can be dangerously influential. High-profile defeats, especially unexpected ones, can provoke overreactions. Single matches can get turned into referendums on a club’s status and identity.
It can be similarly dangerous, though, to use results as an excuse to ignore faults. In that sense, Tuesday’s defeat was almost convenient. United, as a team and a football club, isn’t where it wants to be. Despite domestic results indicating otherwise, it isn’t close. A full-fledged evaluation of the state of the club, therefore, is necessary. Tuesday didn’t make it necessary. But Tuesday might just instigate it.
Other Champions League results
Elsewhere, Edin Dzeko’s second-half goal lifted Roma to a 1-0 home win over Shakhtar Donetsk and into the quarterfinals on away goals.
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