Jose Mourinho Explains Why Manchester United Failed to Control Lionel Messi

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistApril 19, 2019

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 13: Jose Mourinho is seen in the stands prior to the Premier League match between Fulham FC and Everton FC at Craven Cottage on April 13, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Clive Rose/Getty Images

Jose Mourinho thinks "it's normal" his old club Manchester United lost to Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final, but he's still been critical of the way the Red Devils defended Lionel Messi

Barca's prolific No. 10 scored twice during Tuesday's 3-0 second-leg win at the Camp Nou that condemned the visitors to a 4-0 aggregate defeat. Mourinho thinks United made Messi's job easier by changing the way they marked him from their approach in the first leg at Old Trafford.

Mourinho, who was sacked by United and replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer back in December, told Russia Today (h/t Jack Staplehurst of the Daily Star): "Manchester United in the first match, zonally, they occupied that central area very well. So when he came into the inside he was finding Fred, he was finding [Scott] McTominay coming to the inside all the time."

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 16: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona and Fred of Manchester United in action during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final second leg match between FC Barcelona and Manchester United at Camp Nou on April 16, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain.
Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

While Mourinho thinks United had the right plan for boxing Messi in during the first leg, he thinks entering the return game a goal down changed the Reds' thinking, with dire consequences:

"And then it was (Paul) Pogba wide on the left and McTominay much more on the right and Jesse Lingard playing as a No. 10 behind the strikers. And in front of the defensive line was only Fred.

"And that's the area where Messi comes and gets the ball and when Messi has the ball - one-on-one - you are dead. That’s why I never liked individual man-on-man against Messi. Messi's a cage. You have to create a cage."

It's hard to argue with Mourinho's thinking after seeing the amount of space Messi enjoyed against United on Tuesday. He fired in two goals from outside the box after being given the freedom and space to cut inside and win one-on-one battles.

His first-goal illustrated the problem Mourinho described, with Messi finding it too easy to glide past Fred before curling the ball out of David De Gea's reach:

In fairness to Fred, few, if any, players on the planet can rebuff Messi when he's running in space. The 31-year-old is simply too gifted and powerful with the ball at his feet.

However, Fred's culpability in the opening goal did add one more sad note to what has been a drab first season in a United shirt. The former Shakhtar Donetsk star's struggles are representative of United's fall from grace in recent seasons, a slide directly attributable to the lack of marquee players in the squad.

It's a problem brought into sharp focus when the Red Devils face the best sides, both in the Premier League and Europe. Mourinho was brutal in his simple assessment: "Barcelona is Barcelona, they are a better team than Manchester United, they have better players than Manchester United."

Mourinho struggled to recruit the talent United needed.
Mourinho struggled to recruit the talent United needed.Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

Ironically, the truth in this statement offers a further indictment of Mourinho's ill-fated tenure. The former Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid boss finished sixth in 2017, but he did lift the EFL Cup and the UEFA Europa League.

A second-place finish followed in 2018, but there was no more silverware. Mourinho's biggest problem was the slew of failed signings he oversaw.

Fred flopped after costing £52 million, and Mourinho also got little return for big-money centre-backs Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof. Meanwhile, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba have all been guilty of inconsistency.

Solskjaer has been left to pick up the pieces, and he's beginning to find out how tough the job is after a fast start:

It hasn't helped Solskjaer some of United's most dependable players have been out of form in key moments. None are more important than De Gea, a goalkeeper of miracles, but one who let Messi's tame shot squirm through his grasp to give Barca a 2-0 lead in midweek.

Dea Gea found an unlikely source of comfort following his costly gaffe:

Solskjaer hasn't been as kind with his assessments of United's recent failings. Mourinho regularly called for even greater investment, and it's easy to believe Solskjaer will engage in a spending spree once the transfer window opens this summer.

Tactics will only take United so far, and while Solskjaer may have got some things wrong in the way he planned for Messi, he won't truly compete with the best until he has better talent to work with.

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