The Season So Far
It’s been a bizarre campaign for José Mourinho and Manchester United. One would have thought that there were enough reasons for Red Devils fans to be happy about the present and optimistic about the future: the return of free-flowing and prolific attacking football to Old Trafford; a series of hugely impressive results against the sort of teams they weren’t beating last season; a likeable squad of supremely talented players making good on their promise.
But no, apparently United are on the verge of crisis (again). A drab, unambitious draw away to flimsy, vulnerable Liverpool turned the media tide against Mourinho and last week’s chaotic, unbelievable defeat to newly promoted Huddersfield Town left him facing serious criticism from all sides. Suggestions that United cannot win the league under his stewardship are growing ever more numerous.
Such baseless overreactions are the norm these days, especially when Manchester United and every website’s need to harvest clicks are concerned, and the most recent wave of intense criticism will have been water off a duck’s back to a serial winner like José Mourinho. Nonetheless, even away from the exaggeration and outright lies of the media circus, there are problems.
Paul Pogba’s long-term injury has robbed United of the glue that holds their team together, and just when Pogba was hitting the form that made him the world’s most expensive player. The inadequacies of Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini in Pogba’s role have only served to underscore United’s reliance on the Frenchman.
Furthermore, the situation at full-back has reached crisis point. Manchester City rectified their problems with a nine-figure megaspend on full-backs this summer, and Manchester United have gone into this season with Antonio Valencia (32 and not a full-back), Ashley Young (32 and not a full-back), Daley Blind (not athletic enough to be a full-back), Matteo Darmian (rubbish going forward) and Luke Shaw (possibly Mourinho’s least favourite player ever) as their respective options. No-one seems sure how this was allowed to happen.
Perhaps most damagingly of all, Mourinho has been exchanging flirtatious glances with Paris Saint-Germain. Even if he’s only trying to get more money out of the Glazers (he is), it’s hardly the sort of leadership that will instil loyalty in his players, and it’s certainly not the kind of nonsense United are accustomed to from their managers. Boardroom acrimony always seems to be just round the corner when The So F**king Special One has a microphone in front of his face.
The Season Ahead
Before the season started, this writer predicted that Manchester United would win the league and even though rivals Manchester City are blowing everyone else out of the water, it’s still likely that United are going to make a good go of it. Lest we forget, this is a squad of ridiculous strength, with proven quality in almost every position and, yes, in the dugout.
The criticism of Romelu Lukaku in the British media is now close to bullying, and it’s almost all nonsense. Far from being a wasteful, unreliable and unintelligent lout, as which he is constantly portrayed due to his race and his size, Lukaku is one of the best strikers in the division and in Europe. Only the otherworldly talent of Sergio Agüero and the absurdly well-practiced Harry Kane are clearly ahead of him in England right now, and it’s about time the media started acting like it.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata have gone off the boil in recent weeks but they’re still sublimely talented creators and would walk into any starting XI in Europe. Anthony Martial is one of the world’s hottest prospects and it’s only a matter of time before his oddly low self-confidence disappears and allows him to explode. Marcus Rashford is growing in confidence and ability every week. Pogba is so insanely talented that his well-publicised moments of positional indiscipline matter as little as Lukaku’s occasional heavy touches.
And we still haven’t mentioned that in David De Gea they have possibly the best goalkeeper in the world at present. José Mourinho is, even with his powers waning, one of the world’s best and most reliable managers. Wayne Rooney and his colossal
waistline wages are finally someone else’s problem.
In short: they’re really, really good, and they’re in the process of getting even better.
As ever, Mourinho is favouring a flexible but robust 4-2-3-1, with one sitting midfielder primarily dictating play and another more combative one primarily breaking up the opposition’s attacks. The addition of Nemanja Matić has solidified the middle and allowed Mourinho to give his full-backs more licence to attack and this in turn has added another string to United’s bow.
The wide attackers are carrying the attacking threat, cutting in from the touchline and looking to drive through the centre-back/full-back channel in front of them. Mkhitaryan has had some tremendous games as the type of number ten Mourinho apparently doesn’t trust (which is presumably why Deco and Mesut Özil produced such good football under him), and Lukaku fits the bill as Mourinho’s favoured type of big, totemic striker capable of holding the ball up, bullying opposition centre-backs and plundering all kinds of goals.
United’s combination of ludicrous talent and formidable organisation makes them one of the Premier League’s two stand-out teams at present. If Tottenham are to beat them, especially away from home, they will have to be at their very, very best.
Even though their last two performances have been seriously under par, United were absolutely dominant in almost every other match and the stats reflect that. They’ve recorded 15.1 shots per game while allowing 5.6 on their goal, the Premier League’s 5th best ratio. 9.7 of United’s attempts ended up on target versus 3.0 of the opposition’s, the league’s 4th best record.
On top of that they’ve been absolutely ruthless in both boxes: their 44% conversion rate is the Premier League’s second highest, and David De Gea’s insane 85.2% save rate is easily the division’s best. Only Manchester City and Spurs have recorded higher Expected Goals ratios this season.
The most obvious change in United’s play this season, at least in the opening weeks of the season, was the speed and flair with which the Red Devils flowed forward. With Rooney no longer clogging things up in the middle and a more mobile striker than Zlatan Ibrahimović leading the line, United have been reborn. 12.4 dribbles per game is the league’s second highest average and no team has attempted more through balls.
To reiterate: they’re really, really, really good.
As previously stated, there are long-term worries that Mourinho may be about to torch everything around him; that Pogba is still out, so United will be stodgier and less inventive than normal; that the full-back situation isn’t quite satisfactory. These can all give hope to Tottenham ahead of this game.
More relevant, however, is Mourinho’s now infamous caution in high-pressure games such as this one. The obvious worry for United fans is that the Portuguese will play things far too safe and, instead of sucking his opposition into a bad position and creating space for his attackers to exploit on the break, he will end up parking the bus and handing Spurs the initiative. To take the most recent example, a point at Anfield that never seemed in doubt would normally be creditable – against this Liverpool defence, however, playing for a draw is almost unforgivable.
In a league in which thirteen or fourteen of the teams are whipping boys for an increasingly dominant top six, results in the games between those six will probably decide who comes first and who comes second. If fortune favours the brave, contrasting Pep Guardiola’s tactics away to Chelsea and Mourinho’s away to Liverpool tells us which of the two is more likely to reap rewards come the end of the season.
Marcus Rashford is carrying a knock and may miss out, in which case some guy named Anthony Martial will come in (which is just great!). Éric Bailly is close to a return but such a key game may not be the place for it. Juan Mata should return after a midweek rest, but a woeful display in last week’s defeat to Huddersfield may see him demoted to bench duty.
This is going to be the biggest test to date of Tottenham’s progress under Mauricio Pochettino this season – bigger even than Real Madrid away. Win at Old Trafford and we can start talking about Spurs as real title contenders. Lose and it’s probably fair to urge caution and patience and hope for a top four finish. Inevitably, then, I’m predicting a 1-1 draw which allows us to draw no useful conclusions.