Manchester United continued their fine form in the cup competitions with a 2-0 win away to Zorya last night which also saw the club break its European away games hang up with a first away victory since 2013. Here are 5 key points from last night’s game:
1. Jose Mourinho is closer to discovering his best 11
One of Manchester United’s biggest problems this season has been that Jose Mourinho has struggled to settle on the best formation or players for the team. While other managers have settled on a style and the best players for it, the United manager has chopped and changed and the team’s form has suffered as a result.
The main problem for Mourinho was that the line up and system that he believed would suit the team best as he went into the season did not work and uncharacteristically he did not seem to have a competent Plan B.
However the game against Zorya on the back of recent games shows that Mourinho may finally have clarity on how he wants his team to play and who will be playing. The back 4 and goal keeper pick themselves when fit, it is in the midfield and forward line where Mourinho has chopped and changed between systems and personnel for the remaining 6 players.
Things are beginning to take shape though. It appears that United will play a 4-3-3 formation against the more difficult teams with Michael Carrick operating at the base supported by Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba supporting a front 3 of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and one other, likely to be a fight between Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Against the ‘smaller’ sides, United will operate in a 4-2-3-1 system with Carrick giving way for a nos 10 type player with that role going to either Wayne Rooney or Juan Mata.
It cannot be overemphasised how important getting a stable consistent starting 11 will be to this United side and if the team can begin to get a great understanding of each other’s game as well as their managers instructions, then come February when the Europa league resumes again, United will stand a great chance of propelling themselves to victory and a guaranteed return to the Champions league
2. Zlatan still fantastic
Mourinho has employed the big Swede in a target man role, holding up play to allow time for runners to get to him in and around the opponents 18 yard box as well as provide goals. The Swede has delivered on what has been asked of him and leads the United scoring charts with 13 goals, 8 more than United’s 2nd highest goal scorer Juan Mata.
Some would argue that Ibrahimovic’s goal drought earlier in the campaign cost the team vital points, however every striker in the game goes though these periods. Before his strike in the Champions league earlier in the week, Juventus record signing Gonzalo Higuain had gone four games without finding the net, his last goal being from the penalty spot. Even a former United favourite, Chicarito is currently on a spell of 13 games without a goal for club and country.
It happens to the best of strikers and is not down to how ‘old’ they are.
In the main Ibrahimovic has delivered what has been asked of him. He has carried out his manager’s instructions, he has led the younger players and most importantly he has scored goals.
What United need now is for their other forward players and midfielders to begin to be prolific as well and for United’s number 9 in waiting, Marcus Rashford to learn as much as he can from the great Swede and begin to push him for a place in the starting line up.
3. Mkhitaryan vindicating the belief of fans
From the start of the season the United fans have been crying out for the Armenian playmaker. There was widespread disbelief at the player being excluded from first team duties especially with the team playing poorly and struggling to convert chances.
There are times the fans cry out for a player overlooked by a manager and when the player eventually gets his chance he doesn’t take it, a case in point being Memphis Depay. However, in the case of Mkhitaryan he has more than vindicated the belief of the fans in his ability and made it difficult for his manager to ignore him.
The brilliant solo goal against Zorya came on the back of brilliant performances by the Armenian for the Reds so much so that he has leap-frogged Mata, who had been having a decent start to the season, in the pecking order.
In the Armenian United have a top quality creative outlet, a goal threat and as he showed last night a player who can produce magical moments. Not a bad asset to have up your sleeve.
4. Away win first of many?
United have struggled in previous away games in Europe irrespective of the quality of the teams. Defeats this season to a poor Feyenoord side as well as to Fenerbahçe (who the team had dismantled comfortably at home) seemed to confirm a trend that had been the case since 2013.
However with a comfortable performance and 2 goals to show for it, United will be hoping to have put that bad run to bed and set a platform they can build on for future away games
Their next target is to beat Tottenham on Sunday rather than see that game finish with the now dreaded 1-1 score line
5. United will challenge for the title next season
It is fair to say that things have not gone as hoped for United this season but should the team focus on their development then they will undoubtedly be big title contenders next year.
It has been a while since United had such an array of quality players in the attacking third with Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Martial, Mata, Rashford, Rooney and Depay. All players with great quality and potential. United’s midfield trio of Carrick, Pogba and Herrera are also as good as any in the Premier league.
The focus for Mourinho must be to use this season to work on the team’s ability to finish games up and when needed to see them out. There already lies the makings of a very good team and one that could even develop into a great team.
In the summer a replacement for Michael Carrick must be sought. Although, in Daley Blind United may already have the player in their ranks, aside from that and especially with the likes of Timothy Fosu Mensah coming through, United have the makings of a very good team.
They might have to right off the league this year but a Europa league victory and a domestic cup win would see a very good squad go into a new season more confident, more experienced and definitely better prepared to battle for top honours.