Enjoy the game is a phrase every football fan reads every week if they buy a match programme and bother with the manager’s notes. It is a standard greeting, an anodyne pleasantry, so of course José Mourinho, who did not get where he is today by being standard or anodyne, chose to subvert it.
“I hope you enjoy the game more than some of you did against Tottenham,” was how the Manchester United manager addressed his public, continuing the needless bickering with the club’s supporters he began after the narrow league victory on Saturday.
Mourinho may have had a point in arguing that his replacement of Marcus Rashford with Anthony Martial was ultimately what won United that game, whether the crowd liked it or not, but what supporters found much harder to understand was his allegation that there was not enough love around the place for Romelu Lukaku. The way Mourinho told it you might imagine the fans had been on the striker’s back, venting their disappointment that his early-season goals had dried up, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Most people were unaware of any sort of anti-Lukaku negativity until Mourinho mentioned it in a television interview. Similarly his hushing gesture at the end of the Spurs match was not directed at any section of the crowd, none of whom were grumbling by that stage anyway, but down the barrel of the nearest television camera. The manager was confident such an action would be picked up and commented on around the world, which it was, but now United fans are beginning to ask why he would rather pick a fight than celebrate a victory, and why he seems to be seeing problems where none really exist.
To reiterate, no United supporters were complaining that they had not enjoyed Saturday’s game, though some felt Rashford did not deserve to be brought off. And the levels of affection or appreciation for Lukaku would be best measured by the crowd reaction when he scored or engineered a goal, which he did not manage against Spurs, even if he did win an important header to send Martial on his way. Mourinho can hardly expect Old Trafford to go into raptures when the striker sees a shot blocked or a header come back off a post.
Goodness knows what Lukaku makes of it all, it must be slightly deflating for a £75m striker to hear his manager urging paying spectators to be more conspicuously grateful for his presence, though the Belgian did not appear to let it affect his game. Presumably he felt that demanding to take the early penalty Martial won against Benfica would have amounted to trying too hard to win favour with the crowd, though he might have had second thoughts once he saw the weak attempt from the winger that allowed Mile Svilar to partially redeem himself for his error in Lisbon.
After half an hour of somehow failing to find the big fella up front United suddenly presented Lukaku with two openings in two minutes. He missed them both, but not badly, first forcing a save from Svilar with a left-foot shot then heading over the bar when he found himself a bit too far under Martial’s cross to be able to attack the ball. The crowd applauded politely on both occasions, as one might in the circumstances.
One of the things Mourinho could do if he seeks a livelier atmosphere at Old Trafford is import Benfica’s supporters, volubly behind their team from beginning to end. Another, slightly more practical thing perhaps, would be to organise his side so that their main goalscorer sees a little more of the ball. Lukaku was isolated for most of the first half, though he was able to claim involvement in supplying Nemanja Matic for the shot that gave United an interval lead. The former Benfica player will not be able to claim it as his first for Manchester United: his shot struck the foot of a post, though the 18-year-old goalkeeper who provided an unwitting decisive touch probably feels it is about time his Champions League luck changed.
Lukaku possibly feels the same. Given the chance to increase United’s lead in first-half stoppage time the striker powered into the area with only Svilar to beat, though delayed his shot a fraction too long and allowed Rúben Dias to put him off his stride. With his next opportunity he miscontrolled Daley Blind’s pass, then a Juan Mata cross failed to reach him, there was a burst of speed down the touchline after an hour and all the time Lukaku was still coming back into his own half to assist the defence. As Mourinho says, he works hard in games. But anyone can see that; no one was actually saying he doesn’t. He just needs a goal after six games, as was shown by his eagerness to take the second penalty before being overruled. “I think the manager decided,” Matic said. There’s a surprise. So much for being untouchable.
The Guardian Sport