37 shots on target. No goals, and a stadium filled with nearly 75 000 anxious people at Old Trafford. It was another disappointing day for Jose Mourinho and Manchester United, already, the man who is failed as the “Special One”, faces yet another task in his glorified managerial career. Let us first get a few things out of the way. This week, Juan Mata claimed that United were still living in the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson. Firstly, the Red Devils may have been below par during the times of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal, but surely there is a time for moving on, and this is the season for it to happen. Case in point last season. The Premier League’s so-called big teams were so poor last season, it eventually led to a fairytale team like Leicester City winning the title.
Credit needs to be given to the Foxes for one of sport’s greatest triumphs, but with the amount of money spent by the big teams last season, surely there was no room to allow Leicester to achieve that. This season though, things will be different. The notion of Mourinho being the ‘short-term fix’ has begun its murmurs, with the Portuguese earlier dropping Bastian Schweinsteiger to the reserves, not starting the big incoming signing and fully fit Henrikh Mkhitaryan, benching Memphis Depay, and not finding a position for Anthony Martial, who was one of the shining lights for the Red Devils last season. So what are the factors leading to this problem? Is it tactical, dressing room concerns or United just being unlucky?
Many may tend towards the third option, and with Mourinho receiving a ban for his actions this weekend against Burnley, the fire and passion within the Portuguese is there for all to see. It is now a case of finding a right system to bring back the confidence within the squad. Starting at the back, a fully fit Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling is your first option always. Right now, Bailly is out and may only return after the Africa Cup of Nations, meaning a makeshift back four including Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia will need to be exercised for the time being.
The midfield and up front becomes the biggest conundrum. Let us first conclude that playing club captain Wayne Rooney (one can already see that he won’t be a first team player this season) is not the option to play deeper in midfield. The team needs to built around 90-million pound man Paul Pogba, because that price tag demands it. Mourinho made the signing, hence he needs to find a way of making it work. One option would be to play Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera alongside Pogba, allowing the Frenchman to play his regular box-to-box role. The wingers would be either Martial, Jesse Lingard or Marcus Rashford, and slot a in striker, which I will get to in a short while.
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There is also the diamond shape, a system which worked to perfection during his first spell at Chelsea. At the top of the diamond, slot in an Herrera or Carrick, or even Schweinsteiger for that matter, play Pogba and Lingard on the sides, and in the hole, play Mata, until Mourinho deems Mkhitaryan “fit” to start. Up front becomes the problem.
Memes have been going around claiming that “One simply does not drop Zlatan Ibrahimovic”, with actor Sean Bean holding his thumb to the rest of his fingers. But the fact is, the big Swede for the first time in his career is struggling for goals, and the stats of six goals in 10 matches is by no means exaggerated. So how can Mourinho get the best out of Ibrahimovic? Certainly, playing him alone up front is not ideal, hence playing him with a pacier striker in either Rashford or Martial would be the way to go with the big Swede being the man who holds the ball up. Look at Ibrahimovic’s previous clubs. At Juventus, he played off Alessandro Del Piero, at Inter Milan with Adriano and Mario Balotelli, at Barcelona with Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry, AC Milan with Robinho and Paris Saint-Germain with Edison Cavani. It can work and Mourinho needs to make it happen.
The pros and cons are there to see for Mourinho. Pros being that United are eight points behind from the top of the Premier League, and are still in all the competitions they are in, meaning the season is far from over. Cons, is that he has a start that is much worse than that of Van Gaal and Moyes. The media as not yet turned on Mourinho, and he would be wary of not making the same mistakes which saw him being sacked at Chelsea last season and his fall-out with Ilker Casillas during his reign at Real Madrid. Mourinho has the squad to bring trophies back to United.
Sort out the mess, find a formation to bring back the confidence within the off-form players and start players who ought to be in the starting eleven. Maybe then the gap at the top of the table can be trimmed slightly.