The three big issues Jose Mourinho must fix against Valencia to stop Manchester United rot
Having overseen Manchester United’s joint-worst start to a Premier League campaign, and crashed out of the Carabao Cup at the hands of lower league opposition, Jose Mourinho’s tenure at the club is quickly hurtling towards make-or-break territory. The deterioration of his relationship with his players has all the hallmarks of classic Mourinho third-season syndrome, while his tactics and formations are increasingly hard to defend. But, as is the way in football, a few days after losing to West Ham he already has another ripe opportunity to win back favour and stop the rot against a Valencia side with just one win this season. But can Mourinho swallow his pride and make the necessary changes?…
BRING BACK BAILLY
Arguably Mourinho’s biggest scapegoat during United’s tumultuous start to the new season has been centre-back Eric Bailly. After a summer in which Mourinho made no secret of his desire to recruit a new defender, United’s failure to bolster their back-line saw Bailly start their opening two matches – only to be quickly ousted from the team. As is so often the case with Mourinho, that decision – and the players he has used instead of Bailly since then – have felt almost needlessly vindictive. Against Spurs, he was left out of the squad entirely as Ander Herrera lined up on the right side of a back three, while just a few days ago it was Scott McTominay who was preferred. United have already trialled five different centre-back combinations this season, and Mourinho is too quick to offer blame after defeats. ‘We didn’t play well, we made mistakes, we change the team’ – it’s a mantra that offers no consistency. Bailly has been the big casualty of that relentless need to blame, then bench, individuals, rather than acknowledge some wider failing. United’s back-line is clearly missing someone with the natural leadership and decision-making Mourinho requires, but Bailly is the most naturally talented and aggressively physical centre-back in the side. Getting the Ivorian back in the team, and back on song, should be high up Mourinho’s list of priorities.
As in defence, the midfield has been chopped and changed virtually on a game-by-game basis by Mourinho. United started the season with an adventurous and playmaking trio of Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira and summing signing Fred. It lacked somewhat in solidity, but this was a midfield that wanted to dictate and play football. It was scrapped after two games. Progressively, Mourinho has reverted back to a more industrial and cautious style of play, with Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini preferred – even shoehorning McTominay in at centre-back for extra sprinkling of height. But United have been no more solid, and their attacking venom has dried up considerably. Mourinho has been too concerned with using the physicality and awkwardness of Fellaini to combat some of the Premier League’s more bullish teams. He had his uses against Burnley and Watford, but at West Ham he clogged up the play. United were slow and static, Pogba had little support or movement around him, and Mark Noble was allowed to run the show. Ironically, United’s best display this season arguably came in their biggest defeat, at home to Spurs – for the first 45 minutes anyway. A trio of Pogba, Matic and Fred strikes just the right balance between attack and defence, but it’s only been used once. It’s time to give it another run out.
ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK
So far this season, United have only scored 10 times in the Premier League – that’s just one more than Burnley, and two more than Brighton and Fulham – and have a negative goal difference. Mourinho’s teams have always been rather pragmatic, but any caution going forward was compensated for by a formidable defence, control of matches and positive results. Right now, United are offering none of the above. Speaking after only drawing with Wolves at Old Trafford, Pogba pointed out that lack of potency, much to the annoyance of his manager. ‘When we are at home we should attack, attack, attack. That’s Old Trafford,’ he said. ‘We are here to attack. I think teams are scared when they see Man United attacking and attacking.’
But United are struggling to do that. Mourinho’s tactical approach has always lent heavily on individual brilliance, offering freedom to select difference-makers rather than some all-encompassing team philosophy a la Pep Guardiola. But the key to making that work is moments of genius, of which there have been few – January arrival Alexis Sanchez was supposed to fill that void, but he looks a shadow of the player that lit up the Emirates. The Chilean has been one of few players to be given time by the otherwise impatient Mourinho. Normally, the likes of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford come into the side and are given no time to settle and establish themselves. They either perform, or they are axed again. Mourinho’s peers are less volatile. When Harry Kane has endured barren spells, Mauricio Pochettino has celebrated other aspects of his game. While Alvaro Morata continues to miss good chances, Maurizio Sarri at least praises the fact he is getting in the right places. Mourinho does not. He knocks down his players when they need bigging up. As well as taking off the handbrake, this United attack are in desperate need of some confidence.