Already assured of knockout phase football next year, the Portuguese made eight changes for Wednesday’s match at Valencia as injuries took their toll ahead of the trip to Liverpool.
United knew victory at the Mestalla would see them top Group H in the unlikely event that Juventus slipped up in Switzerland, but Mourinho’s men failed to do their bit as the improbable played out at Young Boys.
The Serie A giants lost 2-1 at the same time that United fell by the same scoreline in Spain, where a Carlos Soler strike and Phil Jones own goal meant substitute Marcus Rashford’s late strike was just a consolation effort.
None of those brought in did themselves any favours, so it was little wonder that Mourinho looked at the end of his tether and offered the response of “not pleased” in a brusque start to the press conference.
“I think that to qualify in this group is a success,” the United boss said. “Never a failure. To finish second in this group is always a success.
“Before the game I told the players that if we win tonight and Juventus win, we did our job.
“If we don’t win and Juventus doesn’t win, we can blame ourselves.
“I don’t think the draw finishing first or second – apart from a couple of clubs that are clearly much better than the others – I don’t think the draw will be significantly different…
“But I expect (better) from my players, especially players that week in, week out, you ask me ‘why don’t they play?’, ‘why they don’t they start?’
“(It) was a good match to play, a match without any kind of pressure, a match in a competition that everybody likes to play.
“And, in the end, my team improved, really, when I made the changes that I didn’t want to make, which is a little bit of frustration because I didn’t want to play the three players that I played in the second half.”
Ashley Young replaced the injured Marcos Rojo after a torrid first half, while Rashford came on for summer signing Fred and Jesse Lingard was brought on for Romelu Lukaku.
Paul Pogba failed to shine after starting the last two matches on the bench, while Eric Bailly and Andreas Pereira also struggled to make an impact.
Asked if he had learned anything about his players, Mourinho retorted: “No, maybe you did. Not me.
“I didn’t learn anything from this game. Anything. Nothing that happened surprised me at all.”
It was a cutting response from Mourinho, whose squad players’ performances at the Mestalla only reinforced long-standing opinions.
The United boss confirmed that Nemanja Matic and David De Gea were the only players rested for the trip to Spain.
“If this match was a match to decide the group, it would be a very similar team,” Mourinho said.
“That’s the reality. So, when sometimes when you analyse Manchester United and you speak about our ambitions and speak about our level, sometimes you should learn the situation a little bit better because you make certain kind of comments.”
Valencia will be playing Europa League football despite this memorable win.
Head coach Marcelino said: “We needed this winning feeling back in our game. Today we are very satisfied and I’m happy for the players. We were brave and adventurous.”
Jose Mourinho joked a lack of bottled water at Old Trafford must mean Manchester United are saving money for the January transfer window, but Saturday’s comfortable win over Fulham suggested his squad might not need such radical surgery as previously thought.
For once United did not need to fall behind before taking control, getting goals from Ashley Young, Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku – his first at Old Trafford since March – before the break.
Fulham got back in it via Aboubakar Kamara’s penalty early in the second half, but Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa saw red for a second bookable offence soon after and Marcus Rashford finished Claudio Ranieri’s side off with a scorching shot out of nothing – his first home goal of the season.
Mourinho was unimpressed by a lack of water when he arrived for his post-match press conference – “Are we saving money for January?” he asked – but not much else about the afternoon irked him.
“The first half was really, really good at every level,” said Mourinho. “The second half, as I told the press, Ranieri has good experience. He read the game, understood the game and changed the game for the better for them. It was more difficult for us.
“Also there was some fatigue which is understandable…but it was a good result, a good performance and good individual performances. Lukaku and Rashford had no goals for a while, so their goals mean something for them too. I’m really happy.”
All of this happened with Paul Pogba once again left on the bench. Mourinho said the France midfielder would start against Valencia in the Champions League on Tuesday, but still had a message for his struggling star.
“He has to play with the same mentality as the team is playing,” Mourinho said when asked what he needed to do to get back in the side.
“Paul can be a fantastic player, he has the potential to be a fantastic player. Against Valencia he is going to start and have a fantastic football game to play and to show everybody how good he is.”
That suggests Mourinho wants Pogba to learn lessons from the performances of Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera.
“You have teams that are positionally good, ready to press, and with a desire to press, and I think these two boys – Matic and Herrera – have a really strong mentality,” Mourinho said.
“The way they play football is to play at their top of their level and then the people in front of them were also good.”
One of the most impressive performances of the day belonged to Diogo Dalot, making only his second Premier League start. The 19-year-old sent in a string of dangerous crosses while also keeping Fulham’s Andre Schurrle quiet at the other end.
“He has a lot to learn, he’s 19, but physically he’s compact, he’s technically very good and he’s a happy boy when he’s playing football,” Mourinho said. “He goes forward all the time with good quality of crossing.
“We are very happy. Now it’s December he’s going to get more opportunities to play, to get experience and to be what we thought when we bought him, which is the Manchester United right-back for 10 years.”
Fulham boss Ranieri was unhappy with Anguissa’s dismissal – which came after he tangled with Rashford – but told his players they can build on their second-half performance.
“My player touched the ball only and the referee gave a second yellow card,” Ranieri said. “It changed the match because the first minutes of the second half were much better.
“We showed what we have to do if we are to stay in the Premier League. I said to my players, the first half is how we get relegated. The second half is how we survive.”
Ashley Young broke the deadlock in the 13th minute with a stunning strike before Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku struck to take a 3-0 lead into the break.
Fulham pulled one back when Aboubakar Kamara converted from the spot before Marcus Rashford added a fourth.
Here are a few talking points from the encounter.
Whisper it, but United may have a dynamic, attacking right-back who can cross the ball.
One of the biggest positives Mourinho will take from this display is undoubtedly the display of Diogo Dalot. The Portuguese summer signing enjoyed several forays down the right flank and was arguably United’s greatest creative force on the day.
With Juan Mata tucking in, Dalot had the freedom of the right side to exploit and did so effectively, providing plenty of width for the hosts. He also did a good job defensively although he’s far from the finished article. He did have a couple of nervous moments at the back, particularly when he scuffed a routine clearance which instead fell kindly to Andre Schurrle on the edge of the box.
Nevertheless, the 19-year-old is certainly a raw talent worth nurturing. And speaking of raw talents, will Rashford ever be more than just that?
The Mancunian was a relentless runner against Fulham and constantly threatened the defence with a game-high six shots. He did a lot of good things so it may seem unfair to question his contribution. Two assists and a goal is hardly a poor output but in truth, he could’ve had a hat-trick.
That’s perhaps what’s most frustrating about the 21-year-old. His goal tally doesn’t do his performances justice. He’s into his fourth season as a Premier League forward now but there’s still a lot to be desired of his finishing.
MISSING IN MIDFIELD
No, we’re not talking about Fulham.
United seemed determined to go on the front foot from the start and did just that. Yet somehow, their skilful, £89m midfielder didn’t figure into that strategy.
Paul Pogba was benched for a second game in a row after being named as a substitute against Arsenal in midweek. There’s nothing like a 4-1 win to distract from that decision or even justify it but it remains a festering situation at the club.
Especially against weaker opposition, at Old Trafford, Pogba would’ve relished the opportunity to showcase his flair, possibly help pick Fulham apart on numerous occasions and – at least temporarily – make for a much lighter mood around the camp.
The cynical view is that Mourinho was fully aware that the Frenchman could star against Fulham and didn’t want to afford him any more leverage than he already has in their ongoing feud.
That however does not explain his decision to leave Fred on the bench. His justification for the Brazilian’s lack of playing time was United’s poor defence but against Fulham, that shouldn’t have been a concern.
The £52m summer signing did come on for a cameo appearance but you’d have to say that this was an opportunity missed for Fred to get some much-needed playing time under his belt.
A 4-1 victory looks very good and this kind of performance has been long overdue from the Red Devils. However, they can’t let themselves get carried away. Young’s opening goal was greeted by relief and the result may only be respite as they travel to Anfield next.
It’s important to recognise that Fulham were incredibly poor. This United team has been there for the taking, even at home, but Claudio Ranieri apparently did get the memo.
The hosts created a lot of chances to their credit but Fulham sat off them and allowed them time and space on the ball. Even the goalkeeping for the fourth goal was atrocious.
It was too easy for United and while this is a step forward, it needs to be put into perspective.