It is a little under three years since Swansea City arrived at Old Trafford and embarrassed Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side in the Dutchman’s first competitive fixture in charge . It wouldn’t be the last time the Dutchman was humiliated while at United, but it is a result that remains lodged in the memory, as if to underline the mediocrity that has engulfed the club since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. It is almost 12 months since the Iron Tulip’s tenure at United came to end, and there are plenty of reasons to believe progress is being made. Signs that it hasn’t come fast enough as well.
After all, Van Gaal left United in fifth last season and far from the elite at home or in Europe. It is the position José Mourinho’s side still occupies, although it is of course a reductive argument to suggest that league position alone is a barometer of progress. Mourinho has improved United, while many of the club’s principle competitions for a place in the Champions League have also moved forward this season. New managers at Chelsea and Manchester City have spent healthily, despite Antonio Conte’s argument to the contrary, while Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool have improved under now more established management. Mourinho’s team is running to stand still.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It is almost 12 months since Van Gaal’s tenure came to end. There are plenty of reasons to believe progress is being made. Signs that it hasn’t come fast enough as well.[/blockquote]
Yet, United’s bore draw at City on Thursday night also offers an indicator of the weaknesses that remain in Mourinho’s squad – and with his approach. The Reds began the game in reasonably competitive fashion, but by the half hour mark all pretence that the visitors had come for anything other than a point had disappeared. This was, undoubtedly, the bus-parking tactics that so many United supporters feared when the Portuguese manager was appointed last summer. One point gained, some credibility lost.
The draw hasn’t really helped United’s goal of making the Champions League; not with Mourinho’s side still to visit Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham this season. His team will probably have to win two out of three, or hope for points lost elsewhere.
“They had more ball, they had more chances but I have to defend the players and the spirit of my players and say they were amazing the way they fight,” he said.
“In the first half we controlled easily the game, we controlled easily the defensive side of the game and we were always dangerous on the counter-attack. In the second half, I think they were stronger than us. Despite the fact that we were very strong defensively, we didn’t create enough problems in attack.”
And while United boasts a distinctly average record against the top six this season – save for victories over Spurs and Chelsea at Old Trafford – it is in games against lesser lights, such as Sunday’s opponent Swansea, that have truly let Mourinho down. Nine league draws at Old Trafford is a return even less profitable than Van Gaal, or David Moyes.
The pattern cannot be repeated on Sunday, not after United sacrificed two points in the name of pragmatism during Thursday’s derby. It is a strange narrative given Mourinho’s side is also aiming to set a new club record of 25 league matches unbeaten in a single top-flight season on Sunday.
There are mitigating circumstances, both for Swansea’s visit and United’s approach at the Etihad, with up to eight players injured or suspended. Key players too, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo and Paul Pogba all out of Sunday’s fixture. So thin are Mourinho’s resource in defence and midfield that the team almost picks itself – and leaves little room for rotation ahead of United’s Europa League game against Celta Vigo on Thursday, and then Arsenal next Sunday.
Paul Clement has lost nine of his 15 games in charge of the Swans to date – not the record owners Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan envisaged when appointing the former Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid assistant manager.
Swansea won five of the club’s eight league games after Clement’s appointment to climb out of the relegation zone, but a run of six matches without a win places the Welsh club back in the bottom three. It is too late the change course now, but with Swansea three points from safety and facing Everton and West Bromwich Albion before the season closes, relegation is a real possibility.
It is a steep fall from the heights of European qualification when the Swans were regarded among the best run clubs in the land; a model for ambitious smaller clubs everywhere. No longer.
Clement’s only previous managerial appointment ended after 33 games at Derby Country; it might last half that number at Swansea. Indeed, the logic of Clement’s appointment is undermined by his failure to harness talent in the squad, including international players such Łukasz Fabiański, Jordan Ayew, Leroy Fer, Fernando Llorente, and Gylfi Sigurðsson. All are likely to start against United; each has underperformed this season.
Still, last Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Stoke City has offered Clement’s players some badly needed confidence. “What a difference a performance and a victory makes for the mood, it’s incredible,” Clement said. “Training, everything, is completely different.”
Suspended Marouane Fellaini joins an absentee list that numbers eight for Swansea’s visit to Old Trafford. Paul Pogba, Phil Jones, Juan Mata, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the luckless Timothy Fosu-Mensah all miss out. Of that batch Pogba may return for United’s visit to Arsenal, but there is no guarantee anybody else will play before the season closes in mid-May. Fellaini’s dismissal in the derby means that the Belgian will also miss United’s games against Arsenal and Spurs.
Mourinho has little room to rotate on Sunday, despite it being the team’s 55th game of an exhausting season. Indeed, United will play both weekend and midweek games from now until the campaign concludes, either with Crystal Palace’s visit to Old Trafford on 21 May, or with the Europa League final four days later. The visitors are without Wayne Routledge, Nathan Dyer, and Angel Rangel, but Clement can select from an otherwise fully fit squad.
United subs from: Romero, Tuanzebe, Borthwick-Jackson, Darmian, Young, Willock, Poole, Rooney
Swansea suns from: Nordfeldt, Tremmel, Ki, Fulton, Narsingh, Bastón, Kinglsey, Van der Hoorn, Amat, Montero, Cork
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Assistants: G Beswick, M Wilkes
Fourth official: M Jones
United 2-0 Swansea