Three defeats in succession and the talk of “crisis” now hangs over Old Trafford. How quickly José Mourinho’s Manchester United honeymoon has ended. The warm glow of a successful summer transfer window and solid start to the new campaign is now obliterated after losses to Manchester City, Feyenoord and Watford in the past week. It is as if the last three seasons hadn’t been enough; the circus is now once again in full swing. Yet, the fundamentals that had United supporters feeling confident back in August remain – and Rant has 10 actions that could help Mourinho turn around the slump…
OK, so maybe just a little bit. City’s devastating half hour burst at Old Trafford last weekend showed off all the slick intelligence of an archetype Pep Guardiola side. The only surprise in City’s showing is just how quickly the Blues have cast aside Manuel Pellegrini’s limitations and taken on Guardiola’s well-traveled ethos. Yet, the Reds enjoyed a strong second-half showing, with plenty of positives to be enjoyed despite the derby defeat. More worrying was the manner of United’s 3-1 turnover at Vicarage Road, where the home side was good value for the victory, and Mourinho lashed out at his players. The new manager must hope the game proves to be a one-off in a generally upward trajectory.
Break free of the inhibitions
Mourinho’s use of two deep-lying midfielders, typically Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba, does neither player nor the team true justice. It is, to anybody who witnessed France’s travails at Euro 2016, a role that ill-suits Pogba, a free-spirited midfielder who excels in running box-to-box, but is neither pure playmaker nor defensive midfielder. In fixtures against Feyenoord and Watford, United’s shape more closely resembled of a 4-3-3 than the 4-2-3-1 with which Mourinho is associated, but only against the Dutch was Pogba pushed further forward. In neither game was the Frenchman deployed on the left side of an attacking duo – the role and shape in which he was so good at Juventus last season. It’s time to unleash the beast and push more players from midfield forward.
Find the right defensive balance
For all Mourinho’s famed defensive nous, his side has kept just two clean sheets in seven games. On Saturday, Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly struggled to keep Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney at bay, especially from set pieces in which an unusually tall United side could have conceded more than the two shipped. Individual mistakes have become a distraction this season. Bailly’s positive start to his United career was spoiled by a series of errors on Saturday, while Daley Blind suffered a shocker in defeat to City, where he was at least partly at fault in both of the Blues’ goals at Old Trafford. Mourinho has also criticised both full-backs in recent weeks, but must now focus minds, shaping his team to cut out individual mistakes, while finding the right balance of structure and personnel.
Be brave, retain 4-3-3
Related to the question of shape, is whether Mourinho will retain or ditch his short experiment with a three-man midfield. Against Feyenoord, Pogba, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera struggled to find rhythm; it was Rooney, Fellaini and the Frenchman who suffered in defeat to Watford. Yet, United’s squad appears to be replete with players that will benefit from the system. Pogba, certainly, should be liberated, while Michael Carrick and Fellaini have typically performed better with the surety of strength in midfield numbers. In wide areas, Antony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Henryk Mkhitaryan, and even Memphis Depay are all well suited to the system. Given the captain’s performances in midfield over the past few months, it is now clear that Wayne Rooney is not. And therein lies the cause of and solution to some of United’s problems.
Juan Mata: use him or lose him
The Spaniard is likely to be the biggest loser in any long-term shift to a three man central midfield. In Holland, Mourinho deployed Mata as United’s right-sided attacker, a role to which neither he, nor the team, is well suited. Mata has not always performed well at 10 for United, but there is ample evidence that it is the position to which the former Chelsea player is most likely to succeed. It is surely now time to deploy Mata, who is still United’s most naturally creative force, as the Reds’ principle creator should Mourinho return to a 4-2-3-1 system. But if the the shift to a three in midfield is permanent the Spaniard may be surplus to requirements.
Up the tempo
In comparison to slick City, United lumbered in derby defeat. It is not the Mourinho way. While the Portuguese has been unfairly accused of a safety-first mentality, his sides are rarely slow, and normally play on the front-foot. Indeed, Mourinho’s goal-scoring record at Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid is strong: not once has a Mourinho team approached the low of 49 goals engineered by Louis van Gaal last season. Moreover, he is a manager who routinely deploys speed in attack. Yet, a team that has variously included Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Mata and Fellaini has fallen into old habits of slowing down United’s attack all too quickly. José has the option to tap into United’s pace though: Martial, Rashford, Mkhitaryan and Memphis. After three prosaic performances this week, the Portuguese may just do that.
Keep the criticism in-house
In pointing to his players apparent inability to “handle the pressure” and then singling out Luke Shaw, Mourinho has picked up from where he left off at Chelsea – a predilection to blame his players for faults that are not always their own. True, Mourinho may face a deficit of leadership in the squad, with new signing Ibrahimovic the de-facto on-the-field captain despite Rooney’s possession of the armband. Yet, pointing the finger of blame publicly is likely to do little but provoke a negative, perhaps under-handed reaction, from players all-too-aware of how to play the media game. Should United’s poor form prove to be extended, there will be little surprise if unflattering stories from inside the dressing room begin to leak out. Keep the public comments positive, and the negative in-house, José.
Resist chasing fool’s gold
Mourinho demonstrated a keen understanding of United’s priorities this season in making eight changes for the Reds’ Europa League game at Feyenoord. In the circumstances, with United’s priority clearly a Premier League title challenge, it was the right call, even if rotation played no small part in defeat. There is temptation, after three successive losses, to change that policy, to select a full-strength side for the Football League Cup tie with Northampton Town this week. After all, with United already six points behind a rampant City, is the goal now simply Champions League qualification and a decent cup run? Tempting, but a small squad’s limitations might be exposed if stretched fully across four competitions. The brave decision is to let the kids run loose at Northampton and the squad’s fringe take on European competition.
Permanently incorporate Rashford
In the midst of Martial’s sharp drop in form, the young Englishman is United’s most direct attacking talent. Bright performances off the bench against Cities Leicester, Hull and Manchester, earned a start at Feyenoord. Rashford, in keeping with his colleagues, struggled to get into the game, but he was a rare bright light in United’s sub-par performance in north London this weekend, scoring on the rebound and demonstrating direct running from an unfamiliar role on the left flank. It is a role in which Rashford can have an impact, but is unlikely to perform his best. Indeed, while Ibrahimovic has scored four times in the Premier League this season, there is a strong argument for the Swede to enjoy some time on the bench against the league’s lesser teams – and when United needs to stretch the game.
Time to move on from Rooney
Rant has often been accused of having an “agenda” when it comes to the club and national captain. The suggestion is that, in some unexplained desperation to rid the club of the once brilliant striker-cum-midfielder, Rant is blind to Rooney’s true qualities. It is, surely, an argument that can be dismissed as the bunk it has always been. The sad truth is that Rooney’s decline, three seasons in the making, is on a sharp downward trajectory. Moments of brilliance now punctuate the norm: mediocrity that is weighing down the team and his colleagues. Rooney is now third best in any position for which he can be considered. Behind Ibrahimovic, Rashford and Martial up front; less creative than Mata and Mkhitaryan at number 10; less impactful than most on the wing; and, frankly, a burden in central midfield. United, Mourinho and perhaps event Rooney will benefit from finally moving on.