Andrew Ryan looks at José Mourinho's options to save a flailing Manchester United this season.
Life at Manchester United hasn’t exactly started ideally for José Mourinho. Currently sitting 6th in the Premier League, 8 points off the top 4, and 11 points off the coveted Premier League summit, Mourinho has his work cut out for him in order to make this campaign a success. The Red Devils are substantially below where they need to be, and the fans are becoming restless during a season they expected to pan out a lot differently.
Manchester United are currently on their worst winless run at home in 26 years, after their biggest transfer splurge ever. Despite improved performances on the pitch when it comes to passing and chances created, the goals have dried up for United. They have scored just 3 goals in their last 4 home games in the league, despite registering 90 combined shots in those games. United have only won 2 out of 7 games at home in the league all season, and the Mancunians are worse off in the league at this point than they were at this point in both of Louis van Gaal’s seasons in charge, and than they were at this point under the much maligned David Moyes.
It is this complete inability to score goals which appears to be the biggest problem facing United at the moment. For all of the attacking talent at United’s disposal, including the likes of Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford, Mourinho’s side have scored just 18 goals in 13 games. A lot of these struggles in front of goal has been put down to bad luck by those at Manchester United, and, to be fair, they have reason to believe that. After all, what team can manage to register 90 shots in 4 games at home in the league yet only score 3 goals (1 goals for every 30 shots, which sounds as insane as it is) without being incredibly unlucky?
This issue of luck is best evidenced by Tom Heaton’s incredible performance for Burnley against Manchester United in the 0-0 draw between the 2 teams back in October when he made 11 saves. Heaton is a good ‘keeper' but this Herculean effort could not have been expected by anyone. Perhaps the time will come when some poor souls will show up at Old Trafford and get the stuffing kicked out of them, but attack isn’t the only problem unfolding at Manchester United.
Over the past few years, there has been a radical change when it comes to a key tradition at Manchester United. Back in the glory days of the Alex Ferguson era, the club had a number of wingers supplying width and reinforcement on the flanks through the years. Whether it was Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, or even peak Antonio Valencia, United always had players that would stretch the defence of the opposition out wide, thus making it easier for strikers to find room in the area.
While Manchester United do have that kind of player in Anthony Martial and the aforementioned Valencia, United have often utilised the likes of Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, and Marcus Rashford out wide, all of whom are inclined to drift inside as they are all predominantly central players, and Valencia has been stuck at right back. In fact, even Henrikh Mkhitaryan, when rarely utilised by Mourinho, is used out wide and he’s inclined to drift inside as well. This all contributes to make the central area of the pitch more and more congested, which then makes it much harder for United to create clear cut opportunities, limiting the amount of goals they score.
What makes these issues all the more problematic for Mourinho is just how limited they are at the back. They simply don’t stop enough goals coming in, to compensate for their attacking travails. While Eric Bailly Is a welcome addition, Chris Smalling has gotten better, and Daley Blind is reliable to a point, they are all a far cry from the fearsome defences of their past, including the likes of Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, and the rest. When none of these 3 central defenders are available, United must turn to Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, who are not exactly inspired choices.
However, for every problem, there are solutions. When it comes to United’s issues in front of goal, the only real solution is for United to keep plugging away. The performances have improved without a doubt, and United are creating chances, so, if the players are as good as they should be, the goals will come. Both the issue with United’s defence and their lack of width will likely be solved next summer. Due to their dearth in top-quality options both out wide and at centre back, investment is what is required, which is pretty shocking considering the amount of money they have spent in recent years.
How Mourinho deals with this plethora of issues moving forward is what will define his run as the manager of Manchester United. While his squad isn’t the most diverse, or talented at the moment, it is his duty to make the most out of what he has. Currently, it is clear he is failing to do so. A stark improvement is needed if United are to even reach the Champions League next season, never mind a title challenge. It will certainly be fascinating to see how it all unfolds.