Jose Mourinho would not want to admit this, but the thought of beating Real Madrid in the Super Cup was merely aspirational. For a manager who studies so well and who sets up his team to match each occasion, a victory was not out of the question, but a casual glance at the quality in the Madrid team made it almost impossible. Going against the best team in the world was a fight Mourinho relished because a win would have been almost definitive proof that his team was at the level where it could compete with the very best.
Despite Mourinho’s careful system setup and attempt to fire up his players psychologically, his team were second best for most of the evening. After a promising start, Mourinho’s men became ball chasers, unable to stop the revolving door of Modric, Kroos and Casemiro. As Madrid dominated, United’s defensive set up was still intact, but repeatedly questioned by Isco and Bale. It did not take long for Casemiro to break deadlock with a sweet touch off a sweet volley.
United’s Lindelof was caught sleeping and was made to pay the price. From then on, Madrid became more dominant in the middle of the park, dumbfounding United. Minus new signing Matic, United’s two other midfielders did not make a case for themselves. Pogba was largely anonymous and Herrera looked far from his commanding display against Eden Hazard few months back. He appeared as if he was not fully recovered from his most recent injury.
United’s first half display should give everyone a cause to worry despite the fact that Real Madrid were the opponent. Lukaku was left alone upfront and rarely saw the ball. Lingard, deployed as a wingback, was barely visible. In attack, Mkhitaryan was United’s only bright spot. On the occasions that he received the ball, he opted to go forward with his signature runs, but mostly ran into trouble due to the lack of options.
As expected, it was Jesse Lingard who gave way at the half for Marcus Rashford. Mourinho switched to 4-3-3, displacing Mkhitaryan from his central role. That switch mostly ended the Armenian’s impact on the game.
The changes did not end Madrid’s domination. Within 8 minutes of restart, Madrid added a second, a nice one-two that Isco calmly slotted past De Gea. It was a well-deserved goal that exposed United’s defensive frailties and put Lindelof further under the microscope. One could excuse United’s defensive issues by arguing that it is a new partnership and the move to a back 3 will take time to gel, but they were cut open too easily. With United in disarray, Madrid was encouraged to end the game. Moments later the United backline was cut open again and Bale’s shot came off the crossbar.
Mourinho took off Herrera for Maroune Fellaini, a man who divides more than he unites his own fans. The tactic was simple: play it long. With Fellaini and Lukaku, United’s route to Navas was going to be aerial. The response was encouraging. Lukaku missed a sitter after a fine header from Pogba was steered back in the direction of the goal, but made up soon after with a simple one touch from a deflected Matic’s shot. It is a massive confidence booster for a player whose previous appearance in this competition saw him missed a decisive penalty kick. It was later revealed by Mourinho that Lukaku asked for a move away from Stamford Bridge to recover from the heartache.
It was game on and a much better United. Fellaini was now playing right behind Lukaku with Rashford and Mkhitaryan on the flanks. Madrid were still dominant, but now looked vulnerable. Rashford’s pace proved too much for Carvajal, but his final balls did not yield anything.
There were no further changes to the scoreline, but there were lots of misses and beautiful chances in between. De Gea was called into action a few times. Rashford missed from less than 10 yards out. It was United’s best chance.
For all the talk of a new beginning and a new United, it was the old United that turned up with its dependence on aerial football as an alternative, De Gea as a saving grace, turning to young Rashford for an injection of pace and trickery and more importantly missing big, glaring chances.
Mourinho can walk away with positives ahead of the long and grueling season. Nemanja Matic was excellent as a defensive cover and looked very assured – his passes were simple, elegant and effective, showing glimpse of Carrick’s major asset. He moved forward on multiple occasions. Darmian also played well. Lukaku made his presence felt a few times and Rashford was menacing. Lindelof played well, but still needs time to deliver what Mourinho wants. Antonio Valencia picked up where he left off last season.
But many questions remain: Will United play three in the back? Who will start in that three? After Fellaini’s impressive cameo, will United use him as a backup plan behind Lukaku or will Mourinho opt to start the two big men on big occasions?
United will not be too hard on themselves for losing, but the disappointment was obvious for Mourinho. His record against big sides have not been impressive and it was a missed chance to add a trophy.
The game did not reveal any major weaknesses and probably won’t force last minute business to patch up, but it still seems likely that Mourinho will go after a few more players. Who those are remains a mystery just like almost everything about United’s personnel selection.