Following United’s 0-0 draw to Burnley, leaving them without a league win since their 4-1 thrashing of Leicester in late September, there are many questions surrounding Mourinho’s side. Can they get the best out of their many expensive signings? Can they play coherent, attacking football? Are they good enough to challenge for the title, or even the top 4?
There is little doubt that their squad has the talent needed to challenge in the top 4, but so far we have only seen glimpses of their ability. This is a side with a new manager and a lot of new signings to integrate, but in a year where the Premier League is as competitive as ever, and 2 other major sides are bedding in new managers, that excuse might not be enough. Whilst United may not be in crisis, they are certainly not as good as they should be yet.
The 0-0 draw with Burnley will receive a lot of criticism, but the result doesn’t truly reflect the game. United had 37 shots, and almost all expected goals models had them likely to win around 3\4-0. Against Stoke, they had 24 shots, and again most expected goals models had them winning fairly comfortably. In both games, United created enough chances to win and were denied by a lack of clinical finishing and some outstanding goalkeeping.
Clearly, these were not normal draws and the results were very harsh on United, but even if they had gained the results they deserved, beating Stoke and Burnley is not enough at Manchester United. Against Liverpool, they did enough to keep possibly the most dangerous attack in the league at the minute out, with many expected goals models showing a 0-0 draw was deserved. But United did this by showing very little attacking threat, and in the long run they can’t afford to play in such a negative way against every big side they face. Against Chelsea, they looked set to play in a similar manner, but after conceding early on United never got into the game, and before they could change their set-up the game was lost.
United’s usual attacking set up recently has seen Pogba and Herrera in a double-pivot, with Rashford Mata and Lingard supporting Ibrahimovic in a 4-2-3-1. The system has been a favourite of Mourinho’s for many years now, but as United struggle to create chances in big games it looks increasingly ill-suited to the squad at his disposal.
Ibrahimovic is an all-round forward who likes to drop deeper on the ball, and allow others to make runs into the space he creates. At PSG he had one of the world’s premier goalscorers Edinson Cavani to do this, but with Mourinho tasking his wingers with tracking their full-backs and working hard defensively, they aren’t able to provide this. When Zlatan does drop deep, he finds himself in a position already occupied by Juan Mata, and United lack options to penetrate the opposition.
United have wingers who can perform this role. Rashford has already shown he has excellent movement for a player of his age, and Martial and Mkhitaryan both provided brilliant output from wide last year. Given the freedom to use the space left by Ibrahimovic, any of the 3 could potentially give United a much more dynamic & dangerous attack. At Real Madrid and Chelsea Mourinho’s star players, Ronaldo and Hazard, both turned on him, despite strong personal performances. It might be time for Mourinho to change his style and start awarding his wide men more freedom.
After becoming the most expensive player ever, Paul Pogba’s performances were always going to come under scrutiny, and the current system doesn’t seem to suit him either. Pogba is at his best when is given license to leave his position, carry the ball and create chances, as he did twice for Ibrahimovic against Burnley. When tasked with tracking runners and defending a certain space, he is much less effective. It is questionable whether he possesses the passing range and positional discipline needed in a midfield two- in the game against Manchester City, he looked lost and left Silva and De Bruyne far too much room to operate. Against Liverpool he was pushed further forward where this wouldn’t be an issue, but didn’t receive the support to carry a threat. For Pogba to flourish, he needs to be given the freedom to push forward, without being left too high up to influence the game.
This analysis suggests that United will need to change their system to get the best out of their talented squad. United are not in crisis yet, and their performances are not as bad as recent results suggest, however they are also well behind City, Arsenal and Liverpool, as well as Chelsea and Spurs, at the top of the league. Failing to qualify for the Champions League would undoubtedly see season judged as a failure, and United will need to improve fairly quickly if they are to be successful in such a competitive Premier League.