Theatre of Draws: Old Trafford an increasingly less magical place for Manchester United

It is a place where points are shared, where dreams dissipate and may die a death. A top-four finish is “very difficult,” Jose Mourinho conceded.
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford reacts from all fours during his club's home match with Everton on April 4, 2017. The match ended 1-1. Nigel Roddis / EPA
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford reacts from all fours during his club's home match with Everton on April 4, 2017. The match ended 1-1. Nigel Roddis / EPA

Manchester United 1-1 Everton

United: Ibrahimvic (90’+4’ PEN)

Everton: Jagielka (22’)

Red card: Williams, Everton (90’+2’)

Manchester United are part football club, part marketing masterpiece. Glory has produced phrases that become slogans. They are paraded around Old Trafford, or the Theatre of Dreams, as it is invariably described. It may need rebranding. United’s historic home has become the Theatre of Draws.

It is a place where points are shared, where dreams dissipate and may die a death. A top-four finish is “very difficult,” Jose Mourinho conceded. There is an obvious reason why. Stoke, Burnley, Arsenal, West Ham, Liverpool, Hull, Bournemouth, West Brom and now Everton have drawn at Old Trafford. United have two fewer home wins than Leicester, in relegation trouble until this week. Burnley have nearly twice as many. United’s home games conform to an increasingly well-worn script.

“We had lots of unlucky decisions by the referees. We had lost of amazing performances from the goalkeepers. We had lost of ultra-defensive teams coming here,” outlined Mourinho.

United continue to hit the woodwork, but they continue to be too slow, they continue to miss the first glaring chance — Zlatan Ibrahimovic, scorer of their eventual equaliser is a regular culprit — and they continue to be too profligate.

A team with the second most shots in the division have the fourth worst chance conversion. Over four days at home against West Brom and Everton, United have had 36 attempts at goal and scored one penalty, courtesy of Ibrahimovic.

“How many goals from the attacking players? Not enough,” said Mourinho. “It is something we have to improve next season.”

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It was a sign he is already writing off this, looking to a time when, perhaps aided by different personnel, when United will be more clinical. A 20-game unbeaten run stretches back more than five months, but only half of those have been won.

“Twenty matches unbeatable is amazing. I would sign [for that] immediately for next year,” said Mourinho.

But United marry impressive statistics with outlandish ones. They are odd unbeatable and resolutely quotable. Ibrahimovic began the game by claiming, “Everybody thought I was in a wheelchair.” He ended it rolling to the rescue in the 94th minute.

Yet this did not feel a great United comeback. Jose Time lacked the romance of Fergie Time. Rather than thrilling adventure, United offered a diet of long-ball football, Mourinho insisting his charges lacked confidence despite not losing in the league since October.

“It is the basic thing to play more direct,” he said. “You don’t need so much talent, so much intention.”

Talent, though, is not in short supply at Old Trafford. Quality football sometimes is. Mourinho argued he played his part in the fightback. Luke Shaw, sent on as a substitute, had the shot that brought the penalty that Zlatan Ibrahimovic converted. Mourinho claimed credit, perhaps too much, in egocentric fashion.

“He had a good performance but it was his body with my brain,” he said. It suggested a master manipulator on the touchline, but defeat was averted amid mayhem, a reward for incessant effort rather than expert input.

Mourinho used to be noted for decisive decision-making, for a ruthless, unforgiving brilliance that made him relentlessly right. Yet that clarity of thought seemed to desert him amid a chaos that betrayed confused thinking. Within a few minutes at the start of the second half, Jesse Lingard and Ander Herrera, neither anything remotely resembling a full-back, each found himself deployed as such. Ashley Young, a winger for much of his career, had played on both sides of the defence. United were not actually playing 2-7-1, but it looked that way.

They ended with Marcus Rashford, arguably their best home-grown striker since Mark Hughes, playing wide so Marouane Fellaini could operate as a centre-forward as Everton were subjected to an aerial bombardment.

Rashford has gone 20 league games without scoring. Operating as a winger scarcely makes him likelier to end that drought.

“Marcus Rashford doesn’t score a goal since September, the only thing he deserves is support; no criticism,” said Mourinho, diagnosing an acute case of second-season syndrome in the prodigy.

His first season has yielded a trophy but probably needs a second, in the Europa League, to be branded a success and to bring back Champions League football. The top four look increasingly distant, and the top four drew a pertinent comparison from Ronald Koeman.

His Everton side had been blown away at Anfield on Saturday. They were far more accomplished at Old Trafford on Tuesday. It is easier to face United, the Dutchman suggested.

“United have individual qualities but it aren’t from the start pressing, pressing, pressing. They are still good players but you get more time and you have more ball possession. I feel more comfortable.”

Opponents were not accustomed to feeling comfortable at Old Trafford. More and more, they do now.

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Published: April 5, 2017 04:00 AM

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