What a difference a week makes. The impressive summer and good start to the season brought an inevitable return to Manchester United’s old hubris. Supporters got carried away with their new found confidence. How José Mourinho’s team has brought fans back down to Earth.
After an excellent start to life under Mourinho, with United winning the first four games of the season, the Reds are in the middle of a ‘mini-crisis’. After being swept aside by neighbours Manchester City in the derby, a toothless display away at Feyenoord in the Europa League was followed by an uninspiring 3-1 defeat at Watford. It was a throwback performance: to the David Moyes era, with aimless crosses, a lack of intensity and too many square pegs in round holes. Despite Mourinho’s appointment and the club’s superstar recruitment policy there is clearly still work to do.
The problems exposed by the past week’s results run deep and are not limited to one position or individual. United played well in the opening weeks of the season, yet the manner of the three defeats is concerning and the cause is difficult to pinpoint.
United’s formation is an obvious issue. In recent years the club has been guilty of recruiting players and shoe-horning them into a formation rather than tailoring the system to suit those at the manager’s disposal. This season Mourinho has tried both 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 systems to mixed effects. Paul Pogba, United’s world record transfer, is more suited to a midfield three, where the Frenchman has license to roam at will. Yet, in both games over the past week the formation left gaps between midfield and the forwards, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic isolated on Saturday.
Then there’s the issue with Pogba’s midfield partner. Marouane Fellaini has done well at times this season, but that alone does not warrant a place in Mourinho’s team as a holding midfielder. Fellaini adds much-needed height to the side, but his lack of dynamism contributes to the Reds inability to drive the ball forward.
Fellaini has been used in a defensive role in both systems, though both the Belgian and Pogba would benefit from another body to break up play and move the ball quickly. It means that Michael Carrick may come back into the side, although it says much if Mourinho is now relying on a 35-year-old to turn the team’s form around.
Perhaps crucially, Mourinho also has the Wayne Rooney problem to solve. The skipper has suffered worse games in recent times than on Sunday against Watford, but the Vicarage Road fixture was perhaps the turning point for even Rooney’s most dedicated defendants. That old spark, energy and aggression that once made him one of the most feared forwards in world football has deserted him with age. It is not entirely surprising given that Rooney has played over 700 games in a career spanning 16 seasons.
During more than a decade at Old Trafford Rooney has played in numerous positions, putting the team first. He did nearly all the running for Cristiano Ronaldo during the Portuguese winger’s time at United, and his body type always made it unlikely that he would carry on playing into his late thirty’s as Ryan Giggs did.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The impressive summer and good start to the season brought an inevitable return to Manchester United’s old hubris. Supporters got carried away with their new found confidence. How José Mourinho’s team has brought fans back down to Earth.[/blockquote]
Rooney now arrives at a cross-roads. The options included retirement from international duty earlier than planned; accepting a role in a developing league, such as the Chinese Super League or the MLS; or stepping back and re-inventing his game like Giggs. Either way, his untouchable status within the media is surely now deteriorating. The Scouser and his manager have a decision to make.
Mourinho has broader issues than just Rooney for the moment. The team’s lack of pace, width, the ongoing uncertainty over United’s best centre-back pairing are troublesome. Anthony Martial’s state of mind and how the manager can fit Marcus Rashford into the team are also the cause of more than one headache. With the fixture calendar now packed, there is little time for Mourinho to start picking up momentum. The alternative is to face the very real prospect of onlookers questioning whether the Portuguese is over the hill. This is, after all, a manager who has now lost 14 of his last 32 games in all competitions.
Still, United’s League Cup campaign begins on Wednesday and provides a good opportunity in a difficult week, with Northampton Town representing a beatable opponent. Having been promoted from League Two as Champions, the Cobbers are sitting comfortably in the League One table, having only just given up a 31-game unbeaten run. Northampton also knocked out West Bromwich Albion on penalties in the last round of the competition.
And while the League Cup may not be highest on the list of priorities this season it would foolish not to end United’s winless run when the chance presents itself. There is both silverware on the line and a chance to return to winning ways.
Subs from: Romero, Bailly, Darmian, Rojo, Schneiderlin, Pogba, Fellaini, Martial, Memphis, Rooney, Ibrahimovic
Subs from: Zakuani, Richards, Hoskins, Potter, O’Toole, Cornell, Hooper
United’s only injury concerns are Phil Jones, who is out for a month with a knee problem, Luke Shaw, who came off with a groin injury against Watford, and Henrik Mkhitaryan, who is unlikely to be fit until the weekend.
United’s horrendous defensive showing in Rotterdam last week means it may be a while before Matteo Darmian or Marcos Rojo return at full-back. Antonio Valencia should continue on the right, despite his form dipping in recent weeks, while Eric Bailly is likely to be rested. Daley Blind could return to partner Chris Smalling, with the versatile Tim Fosu-Mensah an option on the left.
After the short experiment with a three-man midfield Mourinho may consider a return to 4-2-3-1, including restoring Carrick to the team in the hope of injecting some vision in deeper areas. The Geordie’s reading of the game and passing ability has been missed this season. Carrick may be paired with Ander Herrera who was dropped against Watford.
Rooney is likely to be afforded another week off, with Juan Mata offered a rare chance at number 10. The Spaniard performed well as a substitute against Watford and may fancy his chances of usurping the captain in his favoured role behind the striker.
Mata could be flanked by Jesse Lingard, who was punished for a disappointing derby display, and Ashley Young, who Mourinho singled out for praise. Rashford can expect to start up front after another goal on Sunday.
Referee: Stuart Attwell
Assistants: S Child, M Perry
Fourth Official: A Marriner
Northampton 0-2 United