AFTER two completely contrasting results in season-defining fixtures, Manchester United fans can be forgiven for being confused over the current state of their club.
From a win against Liverpool with 32 per cent possession to the disaster of a Champions League exit at the hands of La Liga’s fifth placed side, Jose Mourinho’s decisions and strategy have come under fire.
What is he doing to Manchester United?
“They approach every game conservatively, some games they get away with (it),” said club legend Paul Scholes.
“The performance was very bad and they lost, as they rightly should do, but there are a lot of performances exactly the same and they win and it gets swept under the carpet.”
They weren’t swept under the carpet after the loss to Sevilla, where his tactics have been dubbed archaic, he has been accused of mismanaging a squad rich with attacking talent, and those players, in turn, have struggled badly and copped flak from fans and the media.
None have been scrutinised more than January signing Alexis Sanchez.
He looks a shadow of his former self, struggling to adapt to his new shade of red.
However, Sanchez’s woeful form isn’t the only concern at United, with question marks over the future of Paul Pogba combined with a lack of opportunities for young talent.
After a savage analysis from the UK press, Spain’s journalists joined the party in a withering analysis of the loss to Sevilla.
The key theme in Spain was that Mourinho is living in the past – a notion he did not help by reminding everyone of his previous glories at Porto and Real Madrid immediately after the loss.
“You pay for meanness in the end,” wrote Roberto Palomar in Marca. “And Manchester United is a walking monument to mean spiritedness. Poor, miserable, they had everything in their favour to go through … and it was Sevilla that went through.”
“The general opinion of this team that was once respectable and no longer is has plummeted. It’s an unattractive, fearful team, rich in resources but lamentable in its play,” he added.
“Mourinho is starting to look like a washed-up rock star, one of those guys that goes around holiday hotels for pensioners playing old hits on an organ with the base and the percussion playing on a tape recorder.”
They might be second in the league, but there’s a genuine sense Mourinho is at a crossroads and the Manchester United top brass have a key decision to make as to the direction of the club.
In the short term, Mourinho still has two key headaches to solve.
SHOULD SANCHEZ BE DROPPED?
“Sanchez for one, he just looks a shadow of the player he was,” said former United skipper Rio Ferdinand.
“When he was at Arsenal he was the one everyone looked to for inspiration. Here, he just looks like a stranger in this team.”
He doesn’t just look a shadow. He is a shadow.
One goal, no assists in six Premier League games.
No goals, no assists in the Champions League Round of 16.
And, according to Opta, he is lost possession of the ball 247 times since making the move to Manchester United – including 32 times in a single Premier League match against Huddersfield
Right now, Mourinho does not know his best combination of these players and how to field the most potent attack possible – all while setting them out with a mindset that is frustratingly conservative.
Against Liverpool, Marcus Rashford was potent on the left, with Sanchez working hard in the middle.
So, he changed it against Sevilla.
Judging by this map, below, having Sanchez back out on the left didn’t work. It was a clutter.
Scholes has led calls for the Chilean’s axing following his performance in the Champions League exit.
“He (Sanchez) gave the ball away so many times. Surely your manager has to say, you’ve had 10 games now, the last four or five games he’s not been good,” Scholes said.
“I think he has to choose his best front three and be brave enough to leave one out. At the minute Sanchez has to be left out.”
Behind Romelu Lukaku (14), the next three names on United’s goal scoring charts read Anthony Martial (9), Jesse Lingard (8) and Rashford (6) – in that order.
In terms of assists, Martial and Rashford sit equal top amongst the group with five apiece, while Lingard and Mata are on their tails with four.
An inflated pay packet can only earn you so many opportunities, and with Rashford and Martial waiting in the wings to reclaim their starting spots – how long can Mourinho persist with a player whose confidence is sapped.
Would it have been such a tough transition playing under Pep Guardiola?
A CONTINUED POGBA PROBLEM
This season’s marquee is struggling. So is last season’s megastar coup.
No one really knows what’s going on with Paul Pogba.
Left out with injury at Liverpool, benched against Sevilla – it’s hard to understand whether or not his manager truly trusts him.
BBC football pundit and former Scotland international Ally McCoist said: “If I am coming off the bench when he did, then I am looking at the situation in the tie and thinking: ‘I am going to win this game and I am paying some of this £89m transfer fee back – I am making a name for myself at Old Trafford and I am going to get us into the next round.’
“But when he came on, he was lethargic and his passing was poor. At one stage he went to play a simple 15-20 yard pass and just put the ball straight out of play. I was staggered – it was an inexplicable loss of concentration at that stage of the game.
“That has nothing to do with his price tag, because any professional footballer of any standard should not be doing that.
“I would actually question Pogba’s attitude on the back of what I saw on Thursday. It really worried me.
“If Roy Keane was still in United’s midfield he would have grabbed him by the scruff of the neck to sort him out – and he would have been right to do so.
“But there is no-one in this United team who is going to do that, which is a real worry.”
Statistically, the Frenchman performed brilliantly in the first half of the Premier League season – registering nine assists and three goals by the middle of January. But since grabbing a pair of assists against Stoke on January 15, he has failed to contribute a single Premier League goal.
Opting recently for Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay and Marouane Fellaini means Mourinho has had his ideal robust physical players able to execute the simplicity in his disciplined game plans.
Matic, for example, keeps play ticking over and has completed over 600 more passes than any other United player in the league this season and rates seventh overall in the competition. McTominay never overcomplicates things, and has completd 88% of his passes in the Premier League this season.
As for Fellaini, Graeme Souness summed it up on Sky Sports: “Fellaini’s on the pitch – that tells you which way they want to go, thinking they’ll get something at a set-piece.
“It’s Manchester United we’re talking about. It’s Manchester United – the biggest club in the world arguably – playing football like that.”
None, however, come close to the talents Pogba should be providing to link up with United’s attacking riches.
Getting the best out Pogba, and Sanchez, while not stifling the talents of Martial, Rashford, Lingard, Mata, Lukaku and co is a mighty challenge.
For example, a 4-3-3 allows Pogba and Sanchez to both play in their preferred positions on the left – but then, there’s a risk of them crowding each others’ spaces. So a 4-2-3-1 would allow Sanchez to play as a No.10 – but then, returns Pogba to his unfavoured midfield position requiring the discipline Mourinho clearly doesn’t think he has.
It is a headache, and one he is struggling to resolve.
The solution? Mourinho is reportedly at war with his bosses over his demand for four new signings, which The Independent tips as a bid for a centre-back, Michael Carrick replacement and the possibility of seven players being let go.
But after spending £300million in the transfer market over the past two years, is spending really a viable excuse, and spending more, a solution?