It has a been a tough couple of weeks at Manchester United. First, that limp draw with Liverpool at Anfield, then the narrow but unsatisfying victory over Benfica, and finally that traumatic defeat at Huddersfield Town last weekend. Victory over Swansea City in the League Cup ensured that the wheels didn’t come off United’s season, but the positivity associated with the new campaign has rapidly dissipated. It is not a good sign ahead of Tottenham Hotspur’s visit to Old Trafford on Saturday.
One defeat does not a season break, but José Mourinho’s decision to park the metaphorical bus at Anfield has certainly shifted the tone – from unrelenting positivity to questions about the team and its manager’s approach.
[blockquote who=”José Mourinho” cite=””]Don’t ask me about Harry Kane, because if I speak about him I have to speak about Zlatan, Fellaini, Pogba, Rojo, Carrick – so I don’t speak.[/blockquote]
It’s not just that United has lost the “fear factor,” as Mourinho put it on Friday, but that the source of any angst appears to be emanating from within. So fragile is United’s confidence that Mourinho’s decision to seek out a draw at Anfield has seemingly engineered a brand new – and far less positive – narrative among the men from Old Trafford.
After all, the negativity at Anfield against a low quality Liverpool side was total, despite Mourinho’s comments to the contrary. That assessment was put into stark contrast by Tottenham’s 4-1 victory over the Merseysiders last weekend.
Mourinho’s team may have dominated possession against Huddersfield, but his side was well beaten by an opponent that had “more passion,” according to midfielder Ander Herrera. It wasn’t a good look.
Progress to the League Cup quarter-final was secured with victory over Swansea in Wales on Wednesday night, but it was far from thrilling. Fear in the camp? Perhaps not, but Mourinho’s approach will be closely scrutinised against Spurs.
“I don’t think anyone is afraid to come and play us at Old Trafford,” admitted Mourinho on Friday.
“Normally we have good performances at home, we trust our game and yes, the results we can say positive at home. We had lots of draws last season, too many but normally at home we are a strong, confident team so we try to do something tomorrow.
“I think we are fine, I think we are strong and I think we are ready. At home, we are a confident team. We trust our game, the results have been positive.”
United could certainly do with the fillip of victory over the finest Spurs team in two generations. Although Mauricio Pochettino is yet to secure silverware in London, he has built a side that many expect to challenge for honours this season.
Pochettino’s side lost to West Ham United in the League Cup this week, although the Argentine rested most of his key players, including the injured Harry Kane. There are, apparently, bigger fish to fry in North London, although the Pochettino may come to regret not chasing the confidence that silverware can bring.
Kane has been on a hot streak this season, but a hamstring injury appears certain to keep the striker out of Sunday’s fixture. It is good news for United, of course, although the home manager couldn’t resist the temptation to note just how many players he is missing for the Londoners’ visit.
“Don’t ask me about Harry Kane,” he warned. “Because if I speak about him I have to speak about Zlatan, Fellaini, Pogba, Rojo, Carrick – so I don’t speak.”
Kane’s loss is United’s gain, but Spurs’ has proven to be a fine quality side over the past two seasons under Pochettino. At Wembley the side has appeared more reserved, scoring just seven goals in the league this season and losing to Chelsea. On the road, the team is transformed, scoring more than any side in the league, including Manchester City.
It offers pause for thought, not least when it comes to Mourinho’s tactics. Will the Portuguese unleash his attacking players, or seek to reign in United’s ambitions. The horses haven’t run freely in some time.
Yet, the boost to United’s confidence from victory is undeniable, especially after last weekend’s reverse against lowly Huddersfield. It is no exaggeration to say that victory on Saturday might even be season-shaping. Will Mourinho’s side sink into its shell against top opponents – as has become normal – or go on the offensive?
Mourinho has the answers, not that he’s letting on just yet. One thing of which he is certain, win or loss, it will not be for lack of passion.
“To play badly and lose matches, I think that can happen again,” Mourinho noted. “It happens during a season. You cannot play well all the time; you cannot win all the time; you cannot even be lucky all the time. So to lose again, I think it is going to happen but in terms of the attitude that we didn’t like and knowing the players and what good people they are, I believe it was an isolated case.”
Much of the narrative in north London this week has been centred on Kane’s absence, with the England striker becoming one of the finest number forwards in the game. Kane has scored 13 goals in 12 appearances for the club this season. So crucial to the team is the striker that Pep Guardiola once dismissed Saturday’s visitors as “the Harry Kane team.”
Fernando Llorente or Son Heung-min could replace the Englishman, quality players both, but the blow to Spurs’ ambitions at Old Trafford is undeniable. Pochettino is seemingly unmoved.
“Of course we can win there without Harry,” said Pochettino on Friday. “I always believe we can win with one or another team, with one or another player. We have played without Harry before.”
Mourinho was quick to praise the man may United fans would like to see as the Portuguese manager’s eventual replacement at Old Trafford.
“They are a very good team, one of the best in the league. They have a fantastic squad, a good manager, stability and years with the same manager, the same players. They are a really, really, really good team.”
Eric Bailly could return in on Saturday after fully recovering from injury. The Ivorian has not featured for United since the 4-1 win at CSKA Moscow in September, but took part in training this week. Bailly could partner Phil Jones at the back, with Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young competing for one place at left-back. None of United’s long-term injuries will be available, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Marcos Rojo.
With Romelu Lukaku returning up front, Mourinho will choose from one of Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial, and between Wednesday’s goalscorer Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata. Henrikh Mkhitaryan starts at number 10 despite a poor run of form in recent weeks.
“Nobody is back,” Mourinho confirmed. “Jones was on the bench the other day and is okay. Bailly is a possibility. I think we are fine, I think we are strong and I think we are ready.”
One player unlikely to feature is Luke Shaw. The former Southampton defender made just a brief substitute appearance in United’s League Cup match at Swansea. It has led many to believe that Shaw’s time at Old Trafford is now up. Despite being the only specialist left-back at the club, Shaw is some distance from a regular starting place. Shaw this week praised his former manager Pochettino under who the defender played at Southampton.
“I’m always disappointed when a player has a new manager, the new manager becomes the best and the old manager becomes very bad,” Mourinho added.
“Football is full of examples of lack of character, Luke Shaw was just honest. The manager that helped him to come to the first team, the manager who brought him to the best point of his career. It’s a manager that he doesn’t forget, it’s a manager that he likes a lot.”
“He has a future here, but the situation is not easy because he comes from injury, after injury, after injury. He needs matches in a row to play, to make mistakes, to get conditioned, to get match fitness and at this moment I can’t give him that.”
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Assistants: Simon Bennett, Andy Halliday
Fourth official: Stuart Attwell
United 1-1 Spurs