Even before his side were beaten by Feyenoord on a sultry Rotterdam evening in the Europa League, Jose Mourinho was frank in his admission: “It is not a competition that Manchester United wants.”

If this was an attempt by the Portuguese to shake his players out of any potential lethargy before embarking on a campaign in Europe’s silver medal event, it was one that failed – they really did play like they did not particularly want to be spending their night toiling away in the heat before a trip to Watford early on Sunday.

Over the course of a turgid match, there was one decisive moment: Tonny Vilhena’s controlled finish little more than 10 minutes from time that gave the Eredivisie leaders a surprise 1-0 victory.

Mourinho held little back with his team selection. Although he made eight alterations to his starting XI, electing to leave Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney in Manchester, there were still a plethora of international stars on the field.

But those fighting for more regular inclusion struggled to impress.

Marcus Rashford was given a first start under Mourinho at De Kuip, yet in the No.9 role he struggled to offer the same threat as Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The young England striker could, however, point to a distinct lack of service that robbed him of the opportunities to test Brad Jones on a regular basis.

United’s build-up play was too laboured throughout, and though they picked up the tempo marginally at the beginning of the second period, it would not be maintained and their threat was easily quelled by the Eredivisie leaders.

Fingers could be pointed at virtually every Red Devil as they seemed to struggle for motivation and rhythm throughout.

Juan Mata found himself hooked after an ineffective hour in which he struggled to suggest that he will enjoy any more success under Mourinho at Old Trafford as he did at Chelsea, while Anthony Martial was painfully quiet.

Aside from a first-half shot drilled wide from the edge of the area, the Frenchman toiled and was withdrawn along with the aforementioned offensive duo as the Portuguese made wholesale changes on 63 minutes, belying his thoughts on matters perfectly.

But those who came on – Ibrahimovic, Ashley Young and Memphis Depay, himself surprisingly left on the bench upon an evening on which he was expected to get a chance – flopped too.

It said much that the visitors’ best player was arguably a defender: centre-back Eric Bailly.

United might not want to be in the Europa League, but Mourinho certainly does not want the embarrassment of being knocked out of it in the group stages. They are a long way, of course, from that eventuality, but a vast improvement is needed in the weeks ahead.