Refereeing decisions and bad luck have been excuses for Manchester United's failure to win games recently. After United conceded another late equaliser at Goodison Park, Jose Mourinho added the oppositions direct style of play as a way of deflecting what is essentially a problem that lies at Mourinho's own doorstep.
Whether he is the orchestrator of the problems, or the victim of the 'post Ferguson blues' is debatable. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. A point at Everton is not the worst result in the world, taken in isolation. However, this is the third time this season that United have thrown away a slender lead late in the game, having also done so against Stoke City and Arsenal at home.
Stoke arrived at Old Trafford rock bottom, and after the game Mourinho could have been forgiven for bemoaning his luck. United could have won two games with the chances they created, but an inspired Lee Grant kept United at bay and Stoke snatched a draw. Mourinho was on the front foot in that game, and there was no thought of holding onto Anthony Martial's goal.
Everton finale a repeat performance
At the time, United had beaten Leicester City handsomely and ground out a result against Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League leading up to the Stoke game, so although United didn't make it a hat-trick of Old Trafford wins, there should have been no cause for concern. By the time Arsenal came to town, United had been losing a lot of ground on the leaders and a result was important.
The performance was good. United dominated the game, created chances, and got a goal that their superiority deserved. Peter Cech had been busy and David De Gea a spectator. However, unlike the Stoke game, there was a different approach when United had something to hang onto. In response to Arsenal throwing on Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain and Olivier Giroud, Juan Mata was sacrificed for Morgan Schneiderlin.
Within minutes, Arsenal's substitutes combined to equalise with what was pretty much their first attack. United had been in full control, and whilst the substitution to bring on Schneiderlin was pragmatic on paper, the game is not played on paper. The Frenchman wasn't at fault for the goal, but the substitution itself highlighted United's mental fragility.
United can't sustain pressure
From being in control, they were being asked to perform rear guard duties for a matter of mere minutes. They weren't up to the task. United can defend, but it doesn't take a lot of pressure to open them up. It is clear for all to see and the Arsenal game should have been a lesson. In the face of attack, the way out is not to man the barricades, not with this United team.
There is more than one way to skin a cat. Against West Ham United in the League Cup, just a few days before the Everton game, United brought on Bastian Schweinsteiger for the final few minutes. United held a two goal lead, so maybe Mourinho felt there was no chance of this substitution back firing. It didn't.
Although a little cameo, and although West Ham looked beaten, Schweinsteiger helped see the game out and even had a hand in the fourth goal. United have been conditioned under Louis van Gaal to keep the football, and maybe that is something that Mourinho should try and exploit as opposed to merely inviting the opposition onto United.
Protecting a lead is never an easy thing, but Mourinho has been an expert down the years of ensuring his team do so. This is not his team, and these players are not accustomed to doing so. Sir Alex Ferguson's teams occasionally gritted their teeth to see out results, but again that was a different set of players with different beliefs.
Slowly but surely, the players are integrating some entertaining and swashbuckling football with the keep ball. There are signs that this team are ready to break out of the shackles and start putting teams to the sword. They have done so in some of the cup games this year. However, when United don't get a second or third goal they are going to continue to struggle to see games out with a defensive mindset.
The transferring of results from cup to league is proving a problem. The football is improving, the performances deserve results, but these players are just unable to adapt. When they are asked to take the game to the opposition, they are more than happy to. When they are asked to dig in, they are not capable of adjusting their approach and do the dirty work.
Fellaini is a liability
Mourinho can be forgiven to an extent, as the players should be able to adapt. However, that cannot wash much longer. He has to understand that these players are unable to change to defensive mode. And if he does not understand that putting Marouane Fellaini into such situations is only adding fuel to the fire, then not only will he not get any sympathy, he will become the target of criticism.
It is almost possible to feel sorry for Fellaini. He is a liability when he is further forward, he can't stop fouling. Yet, as an impact substitute he can be a nuisance up front in the right way and provide an outlet. Being a nuisance up front should not be enough to warrant a place in Manchester United's team though.
It is obvious see that defensively he is an accident waiting to happen. Every time the ball comes near United's goal and Fellaini is around there will be trouble. He should not be put into that situation ever again. Yet Mourinho seems to like him, and defended him in his press conference. So Fellaini may still get the opportunity for redemption. If he does both he and Mourinho must hope it doesn't turn out to be a crucifixion.
This group of players can turn things around and string some results together. They have to. Their play recently has been good, and somebody may well take a beating soon. Until then, Mourinho needs to focus more on what these players can do, and not what they can't and start turning draws into wins.