The Season So Far
With José Mourinho now in charge at Old Trafford – yes, that still sounds weird to me too – expectations are somewhat higher than under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal. While last season’s collapse at Chelsea seemed to strongly suggest that there’s less method than madness in Mourinho’s maniacal mithering, the popular idea was still that Manchester United would probably return to ominously dominating form. The pressure is on the polemical Portuguese to deliver silverware to an Old Trafford crowd which very quickly grew impatient of watching Premier League title races from afar.
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. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are maturing nicely and have cemented their places among the brightest young prospects in European football. At the same time, the painful and neverending decline of now-literally-useless captain, potato-head and noted ex-footballer Wayne Rooney continues apace.
League form has been up and down, with a series of costly and embarrassing draws leaving United miles off the title pace. Mourinho has acted less like the calculating genius of yore and more like the petulant brat of last season, frequently being sent to the stands and finding himself unable to influence games. 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. Something has to change.
The Season Ahead
Unless a literal miracle occurs, United are out of the title race – already 13 points behind leaders Chelsea – and so Mourinho’s focus will be on securing 4th place and Champions League football for next season. While he has repeatedly mocked Arsène Wenger for doing just that and “specialising in failure”, there is seemingly no option left for United. Lifting the trophy in one or more of the Cup competitions could potentially see this season spun as a success, but the reality is that a title push was the minimum expectation and United seem set to fall short again.
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. The wide men 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 tracking opposition full-backs, that is. 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.
First and foremost, this manifests itself in good defensive figures: 19.1 tackles per game, 17.9 interceptions and 13.6 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 29.6 clearances per game, the 5th highest figure in the Premier League, while the midfield and defence block 9.7 passes per game – the division’s 3rd highest figure.
In attack, they’ve taken 16.4 shots per game – the 4th highest number in the league – and they shoot accurately, with 5.5 of those shots ending up on target – also among the highest averages. Their attacking threat is varied: as the goals scored by Juan Mata against Leicester and Zlatan Ibrahimović against West Ham proved, they’re capable of Total Footballing their way to success, but they’re also unafraid of using their considerable height to their advantage. Only Spurs have lost fewer 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 3rd and 4th highest figures respectively.
They’re also very careful with the ball – not as horrendously careful as they were last season, mind, but careful nonetheless: they have the highest pass completion rate in the division. Spurs can’t expect any mistakes (unless Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney are prominently involved).
While it’s worth stressing how likely it is that United will be infuriatingly well-organised without the ball – as any witnesses of Mourinho’s previous “let’s suck all the fun out of this game” masterclasses will attest – there have been plenty of occasions this season when they’ve been astonishingly open, and David De Gea has been responsible for saving their blushes. 9.6 shots against per game is rather high for a Mourinho team, with 3.3 of those shots per game working De Gea. United are very lucky that the spindly Spaniard seems practically superhuman a lot of the time.
There are also problems in attack. Several of their outings this season have seen them look stodgy and a million miles away from being a coherent team. Several key individuals are far from being on the same wavelength, while others are simply not good enough. Unhelpfully, one of those who’s not good enough is the captain and gets paid £300k per week. While their raw attacking numbers are good and they are genuinely threatening, it’s also true that they’ve only converted 24.7% of their shots on target so far this season – the third worst conversion rate in the league.
A draining trip to Russia will surely have left United tired and below-strength for a massively important league game – hooray for the Europa League! hooray for the rest of Spurs’ season! – but a fearsome starting lineup is still expected on Sunday. Spurs should hope that Marcos Rojo, Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney are picked, while the creaking Michael Carrick could be very vulnerable to the Spurs press.
It still feels odd to say it, but Tottenham shouldn’t be scared ahead of their visit to Old Trafford. For so long victory was nigh on impossible, but the gulf in quality has more-or-less closed and Spurs could nick this if they play to their best. More likely, however, is a score draw full of controversy.