All was going swimmingly for Manchester United at the start of José Mourinho’s second season in charge. Six wins, 21 goals and only two conceded in their opening seven Premier League games emphatically backed claims prior to the campaign that title no. 21 could is a real possibility come May.
However, the October international break happened, and not only does the week off malnourish us fans of high-quality club action, but it incredibly always seems to spark a collapse in the Old Trafford side's form. A unambitious 0-0 stalemate at Anfield has been followed by a plucky 1-0 win in Lisbon and, of course, the humiliating, yet deserved, 2-1 defeat to Huddersfield Town last weekend.
Toppling a very talented Tottenham Hotspur side one goal to nil on Saturday, despite not putting on the most controlling performance, has restored a bit of faith in the title challenge – but things need to be changed. With Pep Guardiola’s ruthless Manchester City now leading the pack by five points and showing no signs of slowing down, here’s how I think United can get back on track before that monster showdown against their noisy neighbours on December 10th.
Get the ‘big’ players back to full fitness
Don’t get me wrong, Manchester United have looked, quite frankly, shambolic at times since the 14 first teamers returned from their country’s final two World Cup qualifying fixtures, however, the squad currently isn’t exactly to full strength. Playing a midfield two away at a high-pressing team like Huddersfield was a recipe for disaster, but it’s not like José Mourinho had any valid options other than Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera.
Coincidentally – not – United’s initial dip in form came after Paul Pogba suffered a hamstring injury in the Champions League opener, a 3-0 win against FC Basel. The dynamic Frenchman is still absent, even though his dancing antics on social media suggest otherwise, and his presence is visibly missed week-in-week-out in a somewhat unenergetic midfield.
Pogba’s replacement and now Stretford End cult hero, Marouane Fellaini, was enjoying the form of his Manchester United career before adding to the ‘sidelined’ list on Belgium duty earlier on this month. Eric Bailly, now vastly considered as the club’s best defender at 23 years old, has also been a hugely missed figure since picking up a knock around the same time as Fellaini – the Ivorian returned against Spurs though and instantly installed his dominance in the back line.
Long-term absentees Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimović should also be in line for returns shortly after new year, although Mourinho believes the latter will be back on the pitch before the end of the year. With Bailly and Rojo standing at 6’ 2”, Pogba at 6’ 3”, Fellaini at 6’ 4” and Ibrahimović at 6’ 5”; there’s no doubt that United’s spine will be a hell of a lot stronger when these ‘big’ players make their comebacks – and yes, the ‘big’ certainly has a double meaning.
Figure out who the true leaders are
Every top football team needs a distinct leader, not just a leader or a number of leaders, a distinct and clear leader on the field and in the dressing room. AC Milan had Maldini, Arsenal had Viera, Chelsea had Terry, Liverpool had Gerrard – the list of great leaders goes on but Manchester United have no players like who are truly capable of filling that role.
Wayne Rooney had been a good captain and influence for younger players in his final years at the club, but his replacement, Michael Carrick, isn’t playing enough to really get his leadership qualities across to the rest of the squad. Zlatan Ibrahimović, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Sergio Romero are the only other representatives over the age of 30. Ibrahimović has had a long layoff, Young has experience but seems overshadowed by Antonio Valencia who, similarly to Sergio Romero, can barely speak English.
In difficult situations like when you’re on the back foot against Liverpool or trailing at a hostile place like the Kirklees Stadium, you need a man to step up and get your team through it. United have different candidates who try and get control in a match – Chris Smalling, Ander Herrera and Romelu Lukaku to name a few – and who, don’t get me wrong, could evolve into a worthy captain, but it’s all a bit of a debacle for me at the moment.
Bury the 4-2-3-1 formation, for good
José Mourinho’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system worked well at first and is a positive formation to use at home against the lesser sides, but he needs to get into his head that this isn’t a formation you should be trying to play in every match now other teams are familiar with it. Plenty of managers have figured this out, instigating the three-defender movement among a number of top outfits, meanwhile, the Portuguese’s tactical stubbornness could end up being his downfall.
We have seen the occasionally 3-5-2 here and there during his 18-month reign, and 4-3-3 appears to be his second choice, but recent games that United have struggled to get a foothold of has been down to the midfield two getting overrun. There was a spell last term when the team were playing their best football with a midfield three of Carrick, Herrera and Pogba, yet 12 of out this season’s 16 games have seen the 4-2-3-1.
The Pogba-Matić pivot worked well in the opening weeks, but against opposition like West Ham United, Swansea City and Leicester City. The Reds were dominated and should’ve lost against Liverpool, had to beat SL Benfica courtesy of a goalkeeping error, and got shown up by Aaron Mooy, Danny Williams and Jonathan Hogg on Saturday – so things really need to be freshened up once the right players are available.
A 3-4-3 system was used to fight Spurs’ dangerous attackers at the weekend and worked well, limiting the away side to just one or two clear-cut chances, if that. Maybe that is the go-to tactic to use against bigger sides in the future, because if the Reds go to Stamford Bridge later on this week with a midfield two it’s not likely to end well – you’d hope José Mourinho would’ve learned his lesson from last season’s 4-0 mauling.