The Season So Far
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. They went unbeaten in the Premier League for something like a million years until losing against Arsenal last weekend, while the League Cup was won at Wembley, meaning José Mourinho has continued his record of efficiently delivering silverware. The Europa League may well be added to that haul – only a promising but ultimately flimsy Ajax side stand between United and their second Cup of the season.
At the same time, there have been way too many home draws against teams United would normally expect to hammer. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw have struggled for form and their places among the brightest young prospects in European football are under threat. In the background, the painful and neverending decline of now-literally-useless captain, potato-head and noted ex-footballer Wayne Rooney continues apace and a muted return to Everton is expected in the summer.
Worryingly but not surprisingly, Mourinho has acted less like the calculating genius of years past and more like the petulant brat of last season, frequently being sent to the stands and finding himself unable to influence games as he would prefer. 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. And the home draws against the likes of Burnley, West Ham, Bournemouth, West Brom and Swansea have been very frustrating.
There are mitigating circumstances: several big names bedding in at once, others going off the boil, others yet to bloom, a fixture pile-up of nightmarish proportions and abnormally abysmal shooting figures, but one thing’s for sure: something has to change.
The Final Few Games
United were out of the title race before Christmas and, as you’ll probably enjoy, the Red Devils are now 12 points behind Spurs and still outside the automatic Champions League qualification spots, comfortably behind fierce rivals Liverpool and Manchester City.
Even with automatic Champions League qualification now almost impossible, United can still qualify by winning the Europa League, so a 6th-place finish isn’t quite the crisis it may seem. Another trophy and a couple of encouraging wins to close the campaign should be enough to see this season spun as a qualified success. Anything else and Mourinho is going to be under a lot of pressure.
There’s also the small matter of Zlatan Ibrahimović’s future to be resolved. Atlético Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann is widely expected to arrive in the summer, and it could be that the maverick Swede calls time on his Premier League career after a solitary season and moves to MLS. No one would be happy to see him go, not even Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, who would presumably be the immediate beneficiaries. In an increasingly polarised world there are few things that we all agree on, but one of those is that Zlatan is bloody brilliant.
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 and the Ecuadorian’s renaissance as a less subtle Dani Alves has been one of the season’s understated highlights.
The wide attackers 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 busy tracking opposition full-backs). 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. Even Luke Shaw.
First and foremost, this manifests itself in a visible work ethic and good defensive figures: 18.3 tackles per game, 15.4 interceptions and 13 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 28.9 clearances per game, while blocking 8.7 passes per game – the Premier League’s fifth and fourth highest figures respectively.
Consequently, it’s hard to get a shot away at their goal – only four teams have allowed fewer shots on their goals this season – and if you do manage to shoot, you’ve got to beat David De Gea, which is far easier said than done: only two teams have recorded a higher save percentage than Man Utd’s 73.3% this season.
In attack, they’ve taken 16.1 shots per game – the fourth highest number in the league – and they shoot relatively accurately, with 5.9 of those shots ending up on target – also the league’s fourth highest figure. Their attacking threat is varied: as the goals scored by Juan Mata against Leicester and Zlatan Ibrahimović against West Ham proved, to name but two, they’re capable of Total Footballing their way to success, but they’re also unafraid of using their considerable height to their advantage: no team has lost fewer aerial duels than Man Utd so far this season, while the Red Devils have created 2.7 chances per game using crosses, resulting in 2.3 headed shots per game – the league’s fourth highest figures.
They’re also very careful with the ball – not as horrendously careful as they were last season, mind, but careful nonetheless: they have the second highest pass completion rate in the division.
In short: they’re generally really good.
If they could convert chances into goals as well as they do everything else, Man Utd would have won the league this season. Several of their outings this season have seen them make a million chances and miss them all, only to be floored by an opposition sucker punch. Only Southampton have recorded a lower conversion rate than Man Utd’s 24.9%. It’s so obvious now that they need ten shots to score a goal that it’s starting to become funny.
As José Mourinho is their manager, they’re prone to parking the bus/sh*tting their pants in big games, and against an attack as fearsome as Tottenham’s, we shouldn’t be surprised at all if The Artist Formerly Known As The Special One decides to play for 0-0 yet again. This from Football365.com this week:
Here is a list of Mourinho’s results in all games away from home against the current top six, stretching back to January 2015:
0-0 vs Arsenal
0-1 vs Arsenal
0-3 vs Manchester City
0-0 vs Tottenham
0-0 vs Liverpool
0-4 vs Chelsea
0-1 vs Chelsea
0-0 vs Manchester City
0-2 vs Arsenal
Also, as all their eggs are very much in the Europa League basket, we may well see the sort of weakened, demotivated, white-flag lineup that we saw at the Emirates last weekend, which would all-but guarantee another home win for Spurs.
Also also, they might put Rooney on at some point and that’s as much use to them as having a player sent off.
A season’s worth of fixture congestion and fatigue, combined with a total lack of desire to win, makes the United XI hard to call. Mourinho being Mourinho, we should expect a heavily weakened side, a completely negative attitude towards the game and a long string of post-match excuses aimed at deflecting attention from his cowardice.
2-0 Spurs and a happy farewell to White Hart Lane.