Neil Humphreys: Man United better without superstars
Lukaku and Pogba not missed in team's improved performance against Arsenal
Jose Mourinho sent a strong message with a bizarre line-up. Unfortunately, he sent the wrong message, one that leaves him in a bit of a muddle of his own making.
The Manchester United manager made seven changes against Arsenal in their 2-2 draw yesterday morning (Singapore time), once again playing the rebel with a petty cause.
He was angry at his underwhelming line-up at Southampton, where they stumbled to another 2-2 draw. He was also raging against the bean counters in the boardroom, sending out perhaps the silliest first XI possible in a puerile protest against a perceived lack of spending.
The result was a firm statement, just not the one he presumably intended. United's performance was a marked improvement on recent plods against average opposition. The Red Devils were better off without their brand names.
Mourinho found the "mad dogs" he wanted by dropping his superstars.
Without the benched Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku (and the AWOL Fred), United unleashed misfits with a desire to prove their manager wrong.
That they did, which leaves Mourinho with a selection dilemma ahead of Fulham's visit tomorrow. His back five included Diogo Dalot, Marcos Rojo, Eric Bailly and Matteo Darmian, who had made five league starts between them before yesterday.
Two silly goals were conceded, but the back five otherwise had a touch of the mad dog about their full-blooded appearances.
Darmian looked like the young Italian fullback who kept the Three Lions in his pocket in Manaus at the 2014 World Cup, rather than the United reject that Mourinho tries to flog in transfer windows.
Rojo's free-kick led to United's opener and Dalot displayed astonishing maturity in his first EPL start. And Bailly strolled out of his box as if every assured, imposing run was his last (which is always a distinct possibility with Mourinho).
The Portuguese has made 46 changes in 15 outings. He hasn't fielded an unchanged side once all season and will invariably pull different names from the hat against Fulham.
But United were gutsier against the Gunners, fighting back with a flinty-eyed tenacity that has been conspicuous by its absence. There was less moping and more "mad dog", which spread from back to front. And that's where things get awkward for Mourinho.
Marcus Rashford came in for Lukaku and while he wasn't a significant upgrade, he wasn't any worse either. Ander Herrera stood in for Pogba and he was a distinct improvement.
The Spaniard's speed and physicality gave United a toughness so often lacking. He deserves to retain his place at the Frenchman's expense against Fulham.
Pogba and Lukaku's benching didn't come as a complete surprise, considering Mourinho's repeated lament about a lack of intensity.
Pogba came on for 15 minutes and barely contributed, but Mourinho can't write off the Frenchman. He signed him.
And that's where the rebellious message gets confusing. Mourinho's decision to drop the superstars in favour of the second-stringers reflected poorly on him. He has no room for £250 million (S$437 million) worth of talent bought from his own shopping list.
Pogba (£89m) and Lukaku (£90m) already seem overpriced, but Fred looks like a cautionary tale. The £52m forgotten man didn't even warrant a place among the substitutes.
By dropping all three, Mourinho is trashing his own luxury car in a misguided protest against the showroom, where he happily picked and paid for the car. He's protesting against his own poor judgment.
United chief executive Ed Woodward can feel rather smug about not releasing further funds in pre-season. If his manager can't spend £250m wisely, why should Mourinho be entrusted with the piggy bank again?
Mourinho has arguably improved his side by dropping his three most expensive signings. Ironically, the longer he benches his superstars, the less likely it is that he'll be given money to buy any more.
- Neil Humphreys will launch his new book, A Royal Pain in the Class, at Kinokuniya, Ngee Ann City, tomorrow (Saturday), 2pm