In theory, it ought to have been a fine day for the brand. “Glory, glory Man United” echoed around Old Trafford as Manchester United closed in on a record-equalling 13th FA Cup. The marketing department could savour the sight of two of José Mourinho’s bigger buys on the scoresheet.
Yet two more languished unused on the bench even before “United” began to appear an inappropriate suffix as the manager eviscerated his team. If there was one thing worse than being castigated in public by the Portuguese, it was presumably being spared censure only by virtue of being omitted. If the scorers on Saturday, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, seem to be Mourinho’s disciples, two who he stated on Friday would form part of his legacy, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sánchez represent recent disappointments. They formed a contrast, a pair who are delivering and a duo who were dropped.
In one sense, United were masters of efficiency against Brighton – two efforts on target produced two goals – but there was precious little stardust. Victory was ground out. It was their 11th win in 15 matches, numbers many a rival might envy, but statistics can camouflage much. United have looked much less than the sum of their parts with Pogba and Sánchez. Mourinho opted for more functional parts without them, a star vehicle with more prosaic passengers.
Pogba was benched for the fourth time in seven games, Sánchez for the first in an Old Trafford career that has yielded a solitary goal in 10 largely unimpressive outings. Mourinho can be the master of the pointed slight, and Marcus Rashford and Marouane Fellani were the substitutes summoned instead of Sánchez and Pogba respectively. It felt like another statement of dissatisfaction in two of the supposed galácticos, delivered in public.
There were more. Two others, Anthony Martial and then Rashford, filled Sánchez’s preferred position on the left, reprising the job-share they had in the first half of the season before the arrival from Arsenal complicated the decision-making process and brought about a demotion for two burgeoning talents.
The most dynamic display from United’s left flank since Sánchez’s signing remains Rashford’s demolition of Liverpool last week: it is also the Englishman’s only start in the side in 2018.
Pogba can also testify that Mourinho has a surfeit of certain types of players; strapping six-footers in the midfield, in his case. It is a sign of the decline in the Frenchman’s fortunes that one who, until recently, was the most expensive player in football history has been rebranded as the anti-Scott McTominay.
Not for the first time, it felt that Mourinho was using the 21-year-old as a proxy, looking at others, and Pogba in particular, through the prism of his new favourite. He paid an unusual tribute to McTominay, highlighting what he thought was his worst performance in a United shirt but praising him for what he deemed an example of damage limitation. “He had the big personality to say and to think: ‘I am not playing well but at least I am going to do the basic things of the game,’” Mourinho explained. “The basic things of the game are [to] keep his position, give balance to the team, recover balls and don’t make defensive mistakes.”
Defensive discipline, the avoidance of errors, positional nous: it was a checklist of everything Mourinho wants in a defensive midfielder. McTominay lacks Pogba’s extravagant gifts and exuberant nature. He does not share the Frenchman’s wanderlust or his capacity to get caught ahead of the ball. If he was charged with replicating Matic’s display, McTominay at least offered similar reliability out of possession. Yet if no man is an island, Mourinho argued a Manchester United player was: Matic, an isolated bastion of excellence.
Matic’s time at Chelsea, where he was once substituted after 27 minutes as a substitute, gives him experience of Mourinho’s policy of confrontational leadership. Now the manager is not only confronting familiar targets such as Luke Shaw but two who, a few weeks ago, would have seemed the Old Trafford untouchables, players protected by their fame and stature.
It explains why United and Mourinho have always seemed an uneasy fit, a club currently in thrall to celebrity and a manager who likes his own form of meritocracy, who delights not in ostentatious displays of trickery, but in industry, productivity, solidity and mentality. Without Pogba and Sánchez, United lacked creativity. Mourinho’s verdict was that they required personality; the implication was that they required more of his own, as embodied by the formidable Matic, on the pitch. United are in the FA Cup semi-finals and the peculiarly Mourinho-esque position where the teamsheet and the post-match comments attract almost as much scrutiny as the performance. Quite where it leaves Sánchez and Pogba, though, remains to be seen.