November 17, 2017
As the final international break of the year comes to a close, we now know which teams will be going to Russia for the World Cup next year. Often, international breaks are seen as games that get in the way of league football, 'proper' football, according to some. This hasn't been the case these past two weeks. Italy have grabbed most of the headlines after being beaten by Sweden, as did Ireland. Some great games and fascinating stories have actually been a nice change of pace from regular European league games, but with the internationals over until March, it's time for domestic football to take centre stage.
In England, Manchester City lead the way with José Mourinho's Manchester United leading the chasing pack. The 'Special One' has improved United massively in the time he's been in charge. Second in the league and top of their Champions League group with a 100% record, as well as waiting for a quarter-final Carabao Cup tie. Everything should be content. Except, it's their City rivals, and Mourinho's nemesis that sit top of the table earning plaudits for their football from all corners of the globe. If United want to challenge City for the title, these are a few issues Mourinho needs to address.
1. Bypassing the midfield in Pogba's absence
If you weren't sure how important Paul Pogba was to Manchester United, specifically the midfield, then their performances since his injury show exactly how lost for ideas they are. Nemanja Matić has, along with David De Gea, been Manchester United's best and most consistent performer so far this season. The Serb has provided United with a defensive midfield service that they have severely lacked for a few years now.
His 6 ft 4" frame allows him to dominate one-on-one battles against the majority of opponents he comes up against, and his tactical awareness protects the back 4 competently. Since leaving Chelsea for Manchester, his mobility and ability on the ball has surprised most fans. Calm on the ball and able to drive forward, he has been more than just a defensive midfielder. The issue comes when he gets to the final third. He isn't naturally a creative player and sometimes dithers on the ball for too long, allowing the opposition to get back into shape.
This is where Pogba is so vital to Manchester United. He can do anything he wants with the ball. Harshly judged on his first season back in English football, Pogba started the 2017/18 season in fine form, registering two goals and two assists in his first two games. Ander Herrera, who has his unique qualities, isn't good enough going forward. Especially, as recently seen in games against Liverpool and Chelsea, United haven't had someone with the bottle to get the ball off the back four and use the ball smartly. The midfield and attack are on completely different wavelengths, unable to link between each other let alone create enough clear cut chances.
Mkhitaryan's form has severely dropped (more on that later) since Pogba's injury which is not a coincidence. The two were forming a good understanding, both creating and scoring from midfield.
The most recent game at Stamford Bridge showed how desperate United get without Pogba in the side. 1-0 down, Fellaini replaced Mkhitaryan and United immediately went direct. The first thought when any United player got the ball was to aim for Fellaini in the box. Chelsea dealt with the awfully average crosses with ease and United were out of ideas. The lack of creativity starves Lukaku of any chances and also makes Andreas Pereira's decision to go out on loan again even more frustrating for United fans. An inventive midfielder who is exactly what was needed. Whether Mourinho would be willing to play him ahead of Fellaini is a different matter, but the 21 year old would surely have got a chance.
How much are Manchester United missing Paul Pogba?
— Sky Sports PL 👑 (@SkySportsPL) November 6, 2017
2. Henrikh Mkhitaryan's horrendous form
There is no doubt that Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a a great footballer with fantastic ability. There is doubt over his mentality and confidence, a discussion that isn't new. He didn't immediately settle in Dortmund after his move from Shakhtar in 2013. Eventually, Mkhitaryan filled his promise and his final season saw him become one of the best attacking midfielders in Europe.
His move to Manchester last year looked like a shrewd piece of business, signing a player of his proven quality for just £26.3 million. The bizarre story of Mkhitaryan's first season is well-known, with the Armenian ending the season well, including scoring in the Europa League final. Big things were, and still are, expected of the 28-year-old for the 2016/17 campaign.
Mkhitaryan's 5 assists in his first three Premier League games signalled that he may be the man to lead United to a successful season. Until Pogba got injured.
Pogba's important to Manchester United is obvious, and the effect he has on his teammates shouldn't be understated. Since his injury both Mkhitaryan and Lukaku's form has massively dropped. The Armenian, especially, has looked a shadow of the player he has only shown in flashes in during his time in Manchester. Easily knocked off the ball without a reaction, not completing simple passes and not running with the ball are all signs that his is a player seriously lacking confidence.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was supposed to be Mourinho's answer to Kevin De Bruyne at Manchester City. Pogba's absence was supposed to see the rise of Mkhitaryan as a leader at United, and at 28 years of age, a player at his peak. His performance against Chelsea, recently, was painful to watch at times. No one, including the man himself, was surprised to see him substituted early in the second half.
After Mourinho's treatment of Mkhitaryan at the start of last season, it's surprising that he hasn't been dropped sooner. A goal for Armenia on international duty may boost his confidence, but don't be surprised Mkhitaryan on the bench against Newcastle this coming weekend.
Whether Juan Mata can provide the spark needed is questionable, a fine footballer, but someone Mourinho seems to prefer on the right of the attacking quartet, rather than in the number '10' position. A lot of United fans are desperate to see Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford either side of Romelu Lukaku. A youthful, athletic and technically devastating attack waiting to be unleashed, could see the goals return to this United side.
3. The ridiculous left back problem
Manchester United are one of the top three biggest clubs in the world and somehow they don't have a top class, regular left full back. Look at the top sides across Europe; Real Madrid have Marcelo, Bayern have Alaba, Barcelona have Jordi Alba, Juventus have Alex Sandro, Atlético have Felipe Luís, the list goes on. Even Arsenal managed to sign a decent left back, on a free transfer!
Full backs are increasingly becoming so essential to any top side. Wingers aren't "natural" wingers anymore, they're more likened to inverted, inside forwards who cut in onto their stronger foot. This is where full backs show their importance and they are the players who provide the width.
Daley Blind is probably (at this point is hard to tell) United's first choice left back with Matteo Darmian the back up. It is safe to say Blind is not going to outpace many opposition full backs. An intelligent and technically decent player, Blind has served Manchester United well, especially during the 2015/16 season where Louis van Gaal used him at centre half. The fact is though, he isn't the man Mourinho will want to keep in his first choice eleven.
His severe lack of pace, which isn't necessarily his fault, doesn't fit the Mourinho build and it's hard to imagine him being the first choice left back for years to come. The same can be said about Matteo Darmian. As an Italian you would expect him to be a good defender, which he is. Darmian's issue is that he looks so unconfident on the ball. His crossing ability is close to non existent. Even when he does overlap the left winger he has to take time to get the ball onto his favoured right foot which slows the attack down.
Luke Shaw's Manchester United seems over. That has been said before but this time it looks like he may leave as early as the January transfer window. Some people would say that José Mourinho has been too harsh on the 22-year-old, but he isn't the only manager to have concerns over his attitude and fitness. Shaw has all the technical attributes to become a top full back, but not at Manchester United. It's such a shame, before his awful injury in 2015 Shaw was in fine form, but ever since he hasn't settled back into the side. A move away is best for all involved. Being a young English player, United would be able to recoup at least half of the £30 million they spent to sign Shaw in 2014, whilst Shaw would get a fresh start in new surroundings and a new manager.
So who should Mourinho target? Kieran Tierney looks a fine young player and despite recently signing a new 6 year deal at Celtic, would find it hard to say no to Manchester United. After Manchester United's two recent wins over Benfica in the Champions League, many United fans were impressed by the performances of Alex Grimaldo, a 22 year old former Barcelona youngster. If Ed Woodward is willing to spend a huge sum of money then Alex Sandro would be surely be a player Mourinho would love. The 26 year old has established himself as one of the best full backs in Europe since moving to Juventus, who have shown in the past few seasons that they will sell their best players if the price is right.
4. Away days at the top 5
Let's be clear, a point away from home against your title rivals is a good point. Except, Manchester City are winning their away games against their title rivals. It's only November and City already have an eight point lead at the top of the Premier League table. After drawing at Anfield in October and the beating Tottenham at Old Trafford, the four points from a possible six made the two games look successful.
Manchester City's impressive performance at Stamford Bridge in September was miles away from the performance United put in against the blues just a couple of weeks ago. Romelu Lukaku was completely isolated, and although he could have done better, was left to hold the ball up without much, if any, support. The Belgian received criticism for his performance against his old club with many saying that neither he nor Mkhitaryan had any supply, when in reality Mkhitaryan should be the supply.
The second half of the season saw United travel to Man City, Arsenal and Spurs, gaining one point from a possible nine. It must be noted that Mourinho had chosen to prioritise the Europa League over the Premier League by this point. A decision that ultimately was well judged. Nevertheless, a 0-0 draw at the Etihad, a 2-1 defeat at White Hart Lane and a 2-0 loss at the Emirates will not be accepted this season, it simply will not be good enough. Even with the Europa League being favoured last season, only scoring one goal in those three games, not to mention the 0-0 draw at Anfield early in the campaign, is not good enough.
People are quick to attack Mourinho over his defensive strategies against his title rivals, specifically Liverpool, forgetting that Sir Alex Ferguson would be more than happy to take a point from their fiercest rivals. Whether it's admirable or stupid that the likes of Arsenal stick to their way of playing in these big games, if they had the ability to shut teams out maybe they wouldn't get battered 4-0 at Anfield or 3-1 at City.
This season, United have again drawn 0-0 at Anfield, in a game that in hindsight was there for the taking. An awful Liverpool was not properly tested, again Lukaku was left isolated only having one shot on target throughout the ninety minutes.
United's next away trip to one of the 'top six' is to Arsenal next month. A team who also have a poor record against title rivals should be a game that Mourinho looks to win. They have the players to go to Arsenal and score a couple of goals. Lukaku would fancy his chances against Koscielny, who is not the same player as a couple of years ago, and make shift centre back Nacho Monreal. The ever changing midfield partnerships should be taken advantage of by Pogba, who will have returned by then, and Mkhitaryan, assuming he returns to form.
With United expected to challenge City for the title, it'll be intriguing to see how Mourinho sets his side up for their trips to City, Arsenal and Spurs in the coming months. This season more than any before, a point may not be a good result.
Manchester United away to Top 6 rivals under Jose Mourinho:
Goals scored: 1
Wins: 0 pic.twitter.com/UQwLovclXo
— Footy Accumulators (@FootyAccums) November 5, 2017
5. Discontent amongst some fans
Sitting second in the Premier League table, top of their Champions League group and quarter finals of the Carabao Cup and some fans aren't happy with José Mourinho. The style of football, specifically against the top six, is not entertaining, that's for sure but some perspective is needed.
Sir Alex Ferguson did not go all out attack away to Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and City. Especially at Stamford Bridge, United's form with Ferguson was actually quite awful. Since 2000, United have won only two games in 22 away to Chelsea. There were times where Sir Alex Ferguson would sit back at hit Liverpool on the counter. See the smash and grab in 2007 that saw John O'Shea become even more of a cult hero amongst the United fans.
Pogba's injury came at a time where the whole team was playing well. Matić and Pogba had quickly formed a fantastic partnership in midfield and Lukaku, Martial and Rashford were all scoring for fun. Once Pogba returns, which should be by the end of November, expect to see United play much more controlling and attacking football. Pogba in the side brings so much confidence to his teammates.
In the social media age that currently occupies us, if you're team doesn't win two games in a row the manager needs to go. Believe me, there are actually Man United fans who want Mourinho to leave or be sacked. The majority of match going fans are much more reasonable than that and realise that all teams go through periods are more difficult than others.
Mourinho's public flirtations with Paris Saint-Germain will not win over anyone, though it may just be his unique way of trying to get a new and improved contract with Manchester United. It seems he is genuinely frustrated with transfer dealings though. It is well known that he wanted to sign Ivan Perišić, who is currently enjoying a great start to the season with Internazionale. It is these public and blatant statements that will annoy fans, but ultimately it is what happens on the field that matters most.
United face Newcastle at Old Trafford this Saturday, which Mourinho will see as a good chance to put in a good performance and build some momentum before the busy December schedule.