The November-December bubble has truly burst. Manchester United’s defeat to Hull City in the League Cup on Thursday night followed successive draws against Stoke City and Liverpool in the Premier League. With each came a consecutively less impressive performance, culminating in a 2-1 loss at Marco Silva’s bottom-dwellers. United’s defeat in Hull was embarrassing, if not disastrous, but manager José Mourinho will have no doubt that his side must quickly turn a patch of poor form around.
Wigan Athletic’s arrival for an FA Cup fourth round tie at Old Trafford this weekend provides a good opportunity to end a three match run without victory, especially with the Latics 21st in the Championship. Warren Joyce’s side has enjoyed something of a recovery of late, but whatever Wigan’s form, the Reds cannot afford another lacklustre performance.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Far too many of Mourinho’s team turned up at Hull, but were mentally absent. It’s the not first time that observation could be made this season. Strange for a side sixth in the table.[/blockquote]
More concerning than defeat in the north east was United’s patently complacent attitude at the KC Stadium. Few, if any, Reds emerged from defeat with reputation unscathed. Far too many of Mourinho’s team turned up, but were mentally absent. It’s the not first time that observation could be made this season.
The sense of hubris evident at Hull was particularly strange given that Mourinho’s lies just sixth in the Premier League table, with a record against top half sides that is far from satisfactory. There should be no doubt that Mourinho’s is an average team that must work harder to achieve its goals this season.
Indeed, the manager has much to do if the season is not to finish in a washout. The Reds remain in four competitions, and have a League Cup final against Southampton on which to look forward, yet the Mourinho’s side is four points off a place in the Champions League next season, with no guarantees that the cups will bring any silverware. Little wonder the optimism of the early winter has mellowed just a little in the past fortnight.
On a more positive note, United’s fixture list offers an opportunity to turn back towards an upward trajectory. After Wigan in the cup, comes league fixtures against Hull City, Leicester City, Watford, Southampton, Bournemouth, Middlesbrough, West Brom Albion, Everton and Sunderland, before the Reds face another rival for a European place. That’s a run that should enable Mourinho’s side to force its way into Champions League contention. Hubris permitting.
Former United reserves manager Joyce returns to Old Trafford for the first time since ending eight years in Manchester to take over at Wigan last November. Joyce enjoyed a superb time at United after joining from Antwerp, first co-managing the reserves along with Ole Gunnar Solskjær, before taking sole charge in December 2010. His record as sole manager includes more than 100 victories in 176 games, together with multiple Under-21 league and Manchester senior cup trophies.
The golden touch hasn’t quite followed Joyce to Wigan, where the Latics have picked up just four wins in 13 games since the 52-year-old’s arrival at the DW Stadium, albeit with three victories in succession during January.
Mourinho continues to talk a good game, even if he must know that his players have substantially let him down over the past fortinight. There can be no repeat against Wigan on Sunday.
“We know the difficulty to play against Championship teams,” Mourinho said on Friday. “We played Wigan already in pre-season and now they are with Warren, who knows us well and will come with special motivation to play against his old club.
“I worked at the club with him for a few months but it was enough to know he’s a very nice man, a very passionate football man. He took the risk, accepted the challenge and left a good situation at this club. His team will be very aggressive, very well organised defensively and also emotional, like the manager is emotional, so it will be a difficult match.”
Mourinho is likely to make several changes to his side with a Premier League match against Hull on Wednesday. Eric Bailly is still unavailable after only just returning to Manchester, but Luke Shaw and Antony Martial return to the matchday squad. Another outcast, Bastian Schweinsteiger, could also enjoy some minutes – a rare sight indeed this season. Mourinho has also drafted youngster Axel Tuanzebe into the squad and the player could make his competitive début for the club.
United subs from: Pereira, Blind, Jones, Rojo, Fosu-Mensah, Schweinsteiger, Pogba, Lingard, Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimovic
Wigan subs from: Bogdan, Daniels, Gilbey, Burke, Le Fonde, Gomez, Flores, Tunnicliffe, Morgan, Hendry, Wildschut
Elsewhere, Mourinho will take a strong squad to Wigan even if some key players, including David de Gea, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Paul Pogba are rested from the starting team.
“This is the second match for us in the FA Cup and I want to do it in a serious way. We have to play with a very good team; the only player that is out is De Gea – I’ll give him a few days off,” said Mourinho. “Apart from that I go with a good team because we want to try to beat them. Anthony will play on Sunday and if he plays magnificently, he will play against Hull in the next match – it’s simple.”
The visitors are without a clutch of former United players through injury, including Reece James, Nick Powell and Andy Kellett. However, another ex-Red, Ryan Tunnicliffe, is fit to face his former club after joining Wigan in early January. On-trial Ravel Morrison is unavailable.
Joyce talks in glowing terms about his time at United, in which more than 25 players under his stewardship have gone on to forge successful professional careers at Old Trafford or elsewhere. There have been some significant disappointments though, with Joyce citing Morrison, together with Adnan Januzaj, Federico Macheda, and James Wilson as players who have not fulfilled their potential because of a poor attitude.
At the opposite end of that scale, according to Joyce, is Pogba: “I knew then that he was desperate to be a successful player at United. He has God–given talent and has to hone it of course. But any coach who says they have ‘made’ a Pogba, Rashford or a Rooney are deluded.
“The talent they have is genetic. Pogba has it. He has fantastic physical, technical and mental attitudes. But he also has a massive heart and that is part of what helps him tick every box.
It’s unlikely Pogba will line-up against Wigan on Sunday. Either way, the Reds certainly need a better attitude.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Assistant Referees: Stuart Burt & Sian Massey-Ellis
Fourth Official: Tony Harrington
United 4-0 Wigan