The reason why Manchester United are currently struggling for identity is because, match-to-match, there are never any clear themes to their performances. Currently, United are a guarantee of nothing in particular and they do not occupy a definitive position in the game. A seat at Old Trafford might provide its occupant a first-hand view of some very expensive, very famous players, but how those individuals will combine nobody can know.
Juventus were the ideal opponent to illustrate that. Not because of the history between the two sides – United have met the Italians in Europe more often than any other side – but because Turin’s Old Lady is one of the game’s eternal symbols. Juventus are excellence, year in and year out. A quick glance at the Serie A table finds them unbeaten after nine games and sitting at the top of a division which they now routinely dominate. They may have brought Cristiano Ronaldo back to Old Trafford this evening, but within his shadow lay all the familiar faces: Chiellini and the recently returned Bonucci remain at the base of Allegri’s formation, Sandro and Cuadrado offered their raiding threat from deep, and Pjanic and Dybala were present and correct, ready to scheme and – in the latter’s case – score.
Between them, they represent something which United had, but to which now they can only aspire: permanence. Juventus are a known proposition in European football, those traipsing into the ground knew what kind of challenge they would present. By contrast, United could have been anything at all. Maybe Romelu Lukaku would bring his first touch. Maybe not. Maybe the midfield would work. Maybe not. That uncertainty has to be replaced with some kind of consistent baseline.
Ahead of this Champions League game, the signs were encouranging. Jose Mourinho kept faith with the side who had performed so admirably at Stamford Bridge at the weekend and these small doses of continuity, no matter how incidental they might seem, matter. To be something – to find the chemistry which has eluded them for so long – United require stability. A clear, cohesive idea for how to play the game, from which maturity and success can grow.
They also require positive results and their chances of achieving another on Tuesday night disappeared inside 18 minutes. Chris Smalling failed to clear Ronaldo’s cross, succeeding only in teeing up Dybala to sidefoot pass David De Gea. He had his goal and, suddenly without anything to protect, United looked lost. Joao Cancelo might have made it two five minutes later, but De Gea beat his angled shot to safety.
Remember when scoring at Old Trafford was treated as an act of impertinence? When United used to retrieve the ball from their own net, slam it back down in the centre-circle, and endeavour to make their opponent pay? No, nobody does, because that seems like another lifetime. Before Dybala found the net, United mustered little beyond a couple of limp free-kicks which were easily cleared. Afterwards, they failed to produce a single shot on Wojciech Szczesny’s goal in the remainder of the half and managed just three touches in the Juventus box in the entire 45 minutes.
The contrast was telling. Juventus played with tremendous dexterity, rotating their players freely across the pitch, penetrating beyond the midfield almost at will and doing whatever they wanted with possession. It was a performance of great purpose. Conversely, United spent much of it locked in their own half, hacking the ball forward and hoping not to concede a second.
These two teams have collided many times before, but you have to go all the way back to 1996 and the Stadio delle Alpi to find a contest which resembled this one in tone. United, still hamstrung by the three foreigners rule and very much European novices, were given a lesson in Turin that night. Juventus scored just once, with Alen Boksic breaking away to clip over Peter Schmeichel, but they were comprehensively better. Maybe not on the scoresheet, but certainly in the control they exerted; it was total and United’s ambition of winning the competition that year looked misguided by the time they boarded the plane back to Manchester.
So that was a dispiriting night and, really, this was too. Ronaldo might have made it 2-0 shortly after the break, but De Gea clawed his whipping shot out of the top-corner. Cancelo also had further opportunities down the right side, but his final ball was lacking and somehow the deficit remained just one. With the exception of De Gea, all the best players on the pitch were wearing black and white.
This wasn’t a failure of effort. United did rally briefly late in the second-half and Paul Pogba was unfortunate to see a curling shot rebound off the post, hit Szczesny and somehow stay out of the net. Towards the end of the game, when Juventus did start to sit back and cede possession, Mourinho’s team did also start to show some urgency and that was enough to briefly engage the crowd and create the illusion of respectability.
But respectability and effort? These aren’t terms which belong in the club’s vocabulary. This was a night when all the promise suggested by that draw with Chelsea was vented away and when, ultimately, the gap between United and the continent’s best looked like a chasm.
1-0 sounds like a close game. This wasn’t, it was hopelessly one-sided, and – again – Manchester United look like they’re nowhere at all under Jose Mourinho.