The Season So Far
At best, it’s been a mixed bag. The statement-sending additions of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba have added some much needed stardust to a squad of extremely costly nearly men, while Eric Bailly has proven to be a solid addition at the back. They’re unbeaten in the Premier League in something like a million years, and the League Cup was won at Wembley and as such José Mourinho has continued his record of efficiently delivering silverware. The Europa League may well be added to that haul soon enough.
At the same time, there have been way too many home draws against teams United would normally expect to hammer. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw have struggled badly and their places among the brightest young prospects in European football are under threat. In the background, the painful and neverending decline of now-literally-useless captain, potato-head and noted ex-footballer Wayne Rooney continues apace and a muted return to Everton is expected in the summer.
Worryingly, Mourinho has acted less like the calculating genius of years past and more like the petulant brat of last season, frequently being sent to the stands and finding himself unable to influence games as he would prefer. Their best performances have come in Cup games no-one especially cares about, while the biggest games – home to Manchester City, away to Liverpool, away to Chelsea – have brought varying degrees of humiliation. And the home draws against the likes of Burnley, West Ham, Bournemouth and West Brom have been very frustrating.
There are mitigating circumstances: several big names bedding in at once, others going off the boil, others yet to bloom, a fixture pile-up of nightmarish proportions and abnormally abysmal shooting figures, but one thing’s for sure: something has to change.
The Season Ahead
United were out of the title race before Christmas and, as you’ll probably enjoy, the Red Devils are now 18 points behind leaders Chelsea and still outside the Champions League qualification spots, behind fierce rivals Liverpool and Manchester City.
Mourinho’s focus will be on securing Champions League football for next season by hook or by crook. With the league looking like an increasingly lost cause, the Portuguese has hinted that he may put all his eggs in the Europa League basket, and with good cause. Another trophy and a couple of encouraging home wins should be enough to see this season spun as a qualified success. Anything else and Mourinho is going to be under a lot of pressure.
There’s also the small matter of Zlatan Ibrahimović’s future to be resolved. Atlético Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann is widely expected to arrive in the summer, and it could be that the maverick Swede calls time on his Premier League career after a solitary season and moves to MLS. No-one would be happy to see him go, not even Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, who would presumably be the immediate beneficiaries. In an increasingly polarised world there are few things that we all agree on, but one of those is that Zlatan is bloody brilliant.
There are few surprises with José Mourinho these days – in more senses than one.
The 4-2-3-1 is as religiously favoured as ever, with one sitting midfielder primarily dictating play and another more combative one primarily breaking up the opposition’s attacks. The full-backs are defenders first and foremost, though Antonio Valencia is overlapping like a young Branislav Ivanović at the moment and the Ecuadorian’s renaissance as a less subtle Dani Alves has been one of the season’s understated highlights.
The wide attackers are still usually fielded as inside forwards, cutting in from the touchline and looking to drive through the centre-back/full-back channel in front of them (when they’re not busy tracking opposition full-backs). A big, totemic striker holds the ball up, physically bullies the opposition centre-backs and scores goals.
Their threat from set plays could arguably be greater, but they’re still dangerous whenever the ball is stopped, and although they’ve lost something of their lustre over the last few years, this is still Manchester United and they have individuals talented and free enough to decide a game with a piece of genius at any given moment. Zlatan Ibrahimović, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial… bloody hell.
Unsurprisingly, given the identity of their manager, the most strikingly positive thing about this Man Utd team is their high level of organisation and their hard work off the ball. Always fully aware of their objectives, both individually and collectively, nothing has been left to chance and the players are always ready to their job, exactly as they’ve been told to do it. Even Luke Shaw.
First and foremost, this manifests itself in a visible work ethic and good defensive figures: 17.9 tackles per game, 15.3 interceptions and 13.1 fouls are very high numbers for a team which almost always looks to have the lion’s share of the ball and play the majority of the game in the opposition half. There’s no nonsense in and around their own box: they make 29.7 clearances per game, while blocking 8.8 passes per game – both the Premier League’s fourth highest figures.
Consequently it’s very hard to get a shot away at their goal – only three teams have allowed fewer shots on their goals this season – and if you do manage to shoot, you’ve got to beat David De Gea, which is far easier said than done: only four teams have recorded a higher save percentage than Man Utd’s 71.1% this season.
In attack, they’ve taken 17.2 shots per game – the second highest number in the league – and they shoot relatively accurately, with 6.1 of those shots ending up on target – also the league’s second highest figure. Their attacking threat is varied: as the goals scored by Juan Mata against Leicester and Zlatan Ibrahimović against West Ham proved, to name but two, they’re capable of Total Footballing their way to success, but they’re also unafraid of using their considerable height to their advantage: only Tottenham have lost fewer attacking aerial duels than Man Utd so far this season, while the Red Devils have created 2.9 chances per game using crosses, resulting in 2.4 headed shots per game – the league’s fourth highest figures.
They’re also very careful with the ball – not as horrendously careful as they were last season, mind, but careful nonetheless: they have the second highest pass completion rate in the division.
In short: they’re really good.
If they could convert chances into goals as well as they do everything else, Man Utd would have won the league this season. Several of their outings this season have seen them make a million chances and miss them all. No team has a lower conversion rate than Man Utd’s 24.4%. It’s so obvious now that they need ten shots to score a goal that it’s starting to become funny.
Also, they might put Rooney on at some point and that’s as much use to them as having a player sent off.
Also also, Marcos Rojo is literally Argentine and this is a big game, so expect him to get sent off for two-footing someone in a moment of what he interprets as absolute commitment to the cause.
Insane fixture congestion makes the United XI hard to call, but there are several nailed on starters. In the absence of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo will start in central defence. The increasingly rehabilitated Luke Shaw may start but it’s more likely that Daley Blind will play, while Marouane Fellaini may have a place alongside Ander Herrera in a beefed-up central midfield, allowing Paul Pogba to focus purely on attacking.
As for Chelsea… yeah.
Mourinho is doubtless desperate to park the bus here but the reality is that Man Utd badly need to win and the Old Trafford crowd probably won’t tolerate sitting back, playing for a clean sheet and feeding off scraps up front. Worryingly for Antonio Conte and Chelsea, United have the quality to put them to the sword here. Expect fireworks, goals and controversy. 2-2.