Seven months into the Premier League season and the trophy seems destined to arrive on the blue side of Manchester. Sixteen points behind Pep Guardiola’s side and showing no signs of cutting the gap, United now face the challenge of protecting any pride they have left by preventing Vincent Kompany and co. lifting the title on the night of the Manchester derby whilst also ensuring Champions League football is secured for next season.
Manchester City, as brilliant as they have been this season, don’t have a squad that is sixteen points better than the one José Mourinho has at his disposal. The difference is one squad know how they want to play and every player has bought into Guardiola’s way. On the other hand, on the red side of Manchester, it’s a different story.
4. United lack any kind of system and rely on individual brilliance
Though any fan can tell you Manchester United usually line-up in a 4-2-3-1, it’s hard to put a finger on the in-game strategy Mourinho adopts. Even in the early season 4-0’s, the games were not complete domination. The goals were usually scored late on, taking the Swansea game as an example, as United’s superior fitness and extra level of quality edged it. Whether it be Lingard, Lukaku, Pogba or Martial stepping up, wins were usually from individual brilliance, rather than a team effort, something Chelsea had shown last season and Manchester City are showing now.
Mourinho’s desire to use a two-man midfield of Nemanja Matić and Paul Pogba is damaging both players just as much. After Mourinho previously revealed Matić is playing through tiredness whilst also carrying an injury, he’s being forced to do an extra work-load by effectively playing on his own due to Pogba’s unwillingness to defend so deep. After starting so well, the Serbian is visibly fatigued at this point in the season but rather than aiding him by switching to a three-man midfield to push Pogba further forward and bring in Herrera or Carrick, Mourinho’s stubbornness is continuing to push Matić beyond his limits and only getting half of what the player is capable of.
The lack of intensity in the way United play is probably the biggest flaw in their game. Compared to the likes of Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City, who would be a nightmare to play against, United players walk and jog around the pitch. Stray passes are given up on, our back four’s willingness to pass from side to side rather than stepping forward with the ball means the opposition can happily remain in two banks of four without any real need to press. There’s no urgency in the way this side play and it’s the biggest reason behind the fact United have only won a game from a losing position once in 31 attempts under Mourinho.
3. Pogba is growing as tired of playing deep as fans are of seeing him there
Since the win over Everton at Goodison Park, Pogba looks to have cut a frustrated figure. After excelling in a role further forward, picking up two assists and earning MOTM, he was thrown back into a double pivot for talent to waste away yet again. There’s no doubt he has the ability to play alongside Matic and contribute defensively and yes, he should be doing it for the team rather than thinking of himself. However, on the other side of Manchester, Guardiola is offering his players the freedom to express themselves and with that, De Bruyne has become one of, if not the best midfielders in world football this season and David Silva, despite being 32, looks to be in the prime of his career. You can’t blame Pogba.
Whilst the club who he could have joined are allowing their midfielders to do what they do best, Pogba’s being repeatedly asked to play in his non-favoured position, where he’s clearly not enjoying his football, when he knows he can influence the team more if Mourinho allows him to play where he and every fan wants him to play.
Neymar wouldn’t happily play left-wingback for Paris Saint-Germain against Real Madrid in their upcoming Champions League tie and it’s the same with other stars. The best know they’re the best and with their desire to be even better, spending almost two seasons wasted in a defensive position and having no success in it will clearly frustrate Pogba as he approaches the prime years of his career.
2. The 4-2-3-1 needs to be thrown into whatever ocean is deepest
If Mourinho wants to dispell the idea of his days being over and that his way of managing is outdated, the 4-2-3-1 should be scrapped. Rather than realising that the system does not work, the players are blamed for not overcoming teams. Planning to face United is probably an opposition managers easiest week of preparation in the whole season. Mourinho won’t give up on the 4-2-3-1 so anyone who has had success against him just gives evidence for other managers to use and recreate. The obvious choice of formation would be 4-3-3 due to it providing Pogba with a platform to excel whilst also allowing our widemen, most likely Martial and Sánchez, to play further forward.
The 5-3-2 is also a much better alternative. Martial, Sánchez or Rashford can partner Romelu Lukaku up-front whilst Pogba plays in a midfield three and the formation also ensures defensive security with three centre-backs. Due to Bailly’s absence, Jones, Rojo and Lindelöf would be a perfectly capable back-three with Lindelöf’s ability to build from the back partnered with Jones and Rojo’s defensive capabilities. But Mourinho is ignoring these options, preferring to blame individual players for poor performances despite lacking guidance and an idea of how we want to play, something the 4-2-3-1 isn’t offering.
1. The recruitment post-Sir Alex Ferguson has been amateurish
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and whilst many of us were extremely excited with most of the post-2013 acquisitions, few have worked out. Whilst we’ve pulled off some superb signings, Martial, Pogba, Bailly and Sánchez to name a few, most of United’s transfer activity in recent years have been fan pleasers, rather than thought out. It’s certainly been improved since Mourinho arrived, but it’s still haunting the club.
The back four that started against Newcastle, Valencia, Jones, Smalling and Young were all here in 2011. Two are failed wingers that start in full-back and both centre-halves aren’t capable of playing together without trying to outshine the other of who can f*ck up more. Yet, eight years later, they’re starting in defence as Mourinho tries to rebuild the club. It’s a selection problem as well as it is a recruitment problem. Shaw and Lindelöf were both able to play and should have done so given Jones and Smalling’s performance against Tottenham. However, the club and Ed Woodward have been throwing money about rather than having a vision of how they want the club to go.
In 2013, they appointed David Moyes. Let’s not talk about him. In 2014, they appointed Louis van Gaal who has the style of play to dominate possession, as we all witnessed with countless 0-0’s at Old Trafford. When his time was up, José Mourinho was appointed, who couldn’t care less about poetry football. Three different managers since 2013, three different styles, all were trusted with large amounts of money if they wished to use it. There’s no direction of where the club want to move in, instead, they have thrown money around and hoped we would somehow sign the better players and win titles due to their star status.
At Manchester City, however, they’re spending huge amounts of money, but with a plan behind it. Guardiola has a vision of what he wants, how the players will fit into his blueprint and I’d be very surprised if every post-Pep appointment at the Etihad wasn’t a manager who plays in a similar style as the Spaniard does. Sometimes, as United fans, we want to dismiss the idea that City are doing things well, but it’s nigh on impossible to do so this season. They’re building a DNA whilst at United, we still can’t identify a style of play or what the squad is actually built on.
This United time is the best we’ve had since Ferguson but we’re still lacking identity and without one, it’s hard to see how we’re going to win the biggest titles. I have no doubts that Mourinho will be the next manager to win the league here, but it’s dependent if he wakes up and realises the solution’s to make us more of a threat aren’t rocket science.