No one could say they couldn’t see the defeat against Hull City coming. The good thing is it was the one game Manchester United could afford to lose and still end up as winners. Not so much in terms of Jose Mourinho’s view of how the game went, the United manager showed his disdain about the referee’s performance by indicating the game ended 1-1 as far as he was concerned, but more in terms of the fact that thanks to Paul Pogba’s away goal United still emerged as winners over two legs and make their way to Wembley for an EFL Cup Final against Southampton.
But in their last two games the team had began to show signs of possible fatigue. Against Liverpool, who have shown they are not at the level they were at the start of the season, the United team struggled, failing to take chances that came their way and being over-run in midfield by their Merseyside opponents. The same cycle was repeated in the away game at Stoke City. In both games, United relied on brilliant goals by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and then Wayne Rooney (the record breaker) to get a point out of games that they should have won if they played at the level that they have done for the last 2 months.
So why has the teams level dropped?
A lot of effort was put in by the players over December and January, especially during the Christmas period, to pick up maximum points and rekindle their top four hopes. The team did this to perfection and in style. So much so that had United taken maximum points from their last two league games, they would currently be sitting in the top four.
It would be unfortunate to work so hard to get themselves in a position to capitalise on slip-ups of other top four contenders only to falter and not be able to take advantage when those slip-ups do happen.
Mourinho’s use of the same players during this period may have led to some level of physical and most likely mental fatigue. The midfield trio of Michael Carrick, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera have not been starting games as well as they were doing a month ago and United’s attacking movement seems to have gone flat
It is also alarming how bad Chris Smalling has looked since his return from injury and Marcos Rojo’s absence from the central defence (and against Hull his presence at left back) has been felt by the team in terms of a loss of confidence and balance in dealing with opposition attacks.
Freshening things up
In selling Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin, Mourinho has also reduced the options he has of refreshing his squad by giving a player who is both hungry and with quality an opportunity as he did with Michael Carrick, Phil Jones and Rojo to great success earlier in the season.
The introduction of the trio to United’s midfield and defence is one of the reasons for the upturn in performance for the Reds. It was the injection of something new and fresh just when the team needed it.
The likes of Jesse Lingard, Matteo Damian and Marouane Fellaini have their uses but are unlikely to ever be players the team can rely on as first choice in their positions if they are to achieve their targets for the season. As a result, Mourinho has no choice but to persevere with the same 12-15 players he calls on game to game even though a few are showing signs of needing a rest or some time away from the team.
The wide areas is possibly the one position where Mourinho can afford to give players a breather, which may be partially responsible for Anthony Martial’s absence from the team for the last 2 outings after a tired display against Liverpool.
With the season reaching its critical point and the added responsibility of competing in the Europa League about to resume, Mourinho has to find a way to keep his team fresh enough to compete on all fronts. The sale of Morgan Schneiderlin may yet prove costly as United are particularly light in midfield and Mourinho will be hoping he doesn’t pick up any injuries
Play the kids?
With an FA Cup game at home against Championship side Wigan Athletic coming up next, the manager can do worse than give an opportunity to a few of the promising young players coming through such as Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe. Last season, the introduction of Marcus Rashford, the aforementioned Fosu-Mensah and Guillermo Varela, gave the team a timely spark that it needed when decimated by injuries. This season, it could be that the introduction of these two may give the squad the needed injection of freshness that it has seemed to be lacking in the last couple of games. The introduction of new players into the team who go on to perform well always seems to have a positive effect on the mentality of a team and give the players another surge of energy, almost as if they are feeding off the enthusiasm of the new players.
With Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City in shaky form and Tottenham suffering a few injuries, added to the fixtures coming up, Manchester United have a good opportunity to get a stable footing into the Premier League’s top four positions. It is an opportunity they need to take with both hands. It’s time for Mourinho’s Reds to wake up.