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1) United were well beaten
First things first, and stating the obvious, Manchester United were well beaten at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. At the ground that has been notoriously unsuccessful for any United side in the Premier League era, they were once again beaten, and it was resoundingly comprehensive. There are different points to scrutinise, and different reasons to put forward and explain, but right from the 31st second of the game, things started bad and got progressively worse.
The stats don’t reflect the fact that this was a performance deserving of a 4-0 hammering. United had 56% of possession, 16 shots of which 5 were on target, and 7 corners. However, the truth is that Chelsea were by far the better side on the day, and worthy of the winning margin. Chelsea looked cohesive, composed, and were extremely clinical. In contrast, United looked shambolic. It wasn’t just a case of individual errors leading to goals, several players were at fault for each of them.
The key moment in the game was conceding in the opening seconds, allowing Pedro to capitalise on a routine early long pass that should have been easily dealt with. Chris Smalling had a day to forget and was the most culpable for this goal, but he was ably assisted in his charity work by Daley Blind being five yards behind his defensive partners, and David De Gea rushing out of his goal like a maniac. That was the game-plan out the window. The side mourinho selected was demonstrably picked in order to try and repeat the rigid performance of Monday night at Anfield. Forced to chase the game from the first minute, United never regained any composure or control. The first half was just an awful performance from one to eleven, and although the half time changes created a little more attacking impetus, in truth Thibaut Courtois didn’t have to work hard for his clean sheet bonus, and Chelsea were always the more likely side to add to their tally, content to play on the counter with players perfectly suited to quick, incisive attacks launched from their own half.
2) The Mourinho Effect hasn’t kicked in
As with any defeat since the retirement of Sir Alex, social media and fan forums have gone into melt down following this catastrophic result. 14 points from 9 games is a poor return, and once again the popular meme is the fact that the much-derided LVG had 19 points at the same stage last season.
Let’s put that to one side. I think most seasoned fans are mature enough to know that Jose Mourinho is an elite manager who needs time to mould his side and his squad into his image. He has been successful and has won titles with every side he has managed across Europe and in England for the last 15 years. What was clear on Sunday though, is that this is not yet a Mourinho side. His teams are based on structure, organisation, and cohesiveness. That evaporated against Chelsea, and the balance has seemed equally poor in several games this season.
This was the second biggest defeat of his managerial career and I genuinely think he was embarrassed by the performance of his players. It is still early in his reign, but for the side to come apart at the seams like they did is concerning, and illustrates that there is a lot of work to be done on the training pitch to be considered as anything approaching a team that can contest the Premier League title.
It is difficult to understand how the side can put in such a disciplined, albeit pragmatic, performance against a rampant Liverpool, and then collectively fail to carry out the most basic of defensive duties six days later.
This is now an integral point in the season for Mourinho. One point from six in the last two difficult fixtures is not good enough. The general feeling was that a point on Monday night was satisfactory despite the unadventurous nature of the performance. Fans are willing to tolerate a defensive approach in the current climate as long as it delivers results. On a personal level, I’ve been frustrated with the approach to the games against the big teams as the sides have been selected to attempt to counteract and nullify the opponents, rather than seeking to control and dominate games. This is typical Mourinho; he has made a hugely successful career out of it. But when you have an expensively assembled squad including the world’s most expensive player, is it wrong to expect more? The culture of the club is attacking, entertaining football. If it is not being delivered, coupled with a poor return in terms of results, fans will eventually start to be vocal in their opposition to his approach.
3) This team have a weak belly
Apologies if that is a local colloquialism, but let me explain: This team does not thrive in adversity. In the last three seasons, this group of players have consistently folded under pressure, it has become endemic. Like many, I thought that the arrival of Mourinho could immediately eradicate this, but his players have ably demonstrated that the weakness of their collective characters is still very evident.
Since Ferguson left the club, it has become a rarity for a comeback to be mounted having gone behind. That has unfortunately remained the case this season. United have failed to win, or even draw, any game this season in which they have gone behind. This used to be a trademark.
The question is, can this character be built and moulded over the course of the season, or is there a fundamental problem with the mindset of too many of these players? Mourinho talked early this season about the need to ‘re-program’ the squad, and in fairness he did say it would take time and that this was a bigger job than he had realised. It is clear that this re-programming must be mental as well as tactical.
Certain players need to stand up and be counted in the coming weeks or their long-term futures at the club are in jeopardy.
4) The new arrivals are not having the desired impact
This summer’s dealings in the transfer market were widely regarded to be the best recruitments to the club in many years. That may still turn out to be the case, but Sunday was another example of the new additions failing to make the desired impact. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had an electric start to the season, but there is no question his form has hit a rocky patch and the goals have dried up. He was poor against Chelsea on what was a difficult day for the whole side. He consistently dropped deep in search of the ball when what was needed was a focal point to the attack. Questions are certainly there to be answered as to whether this 35-year-old icon should be an automatic pick for every game. He has outstanding attributes, but they are maybe better suited to certain games against particular opponents, and the options of Martial or Rashford playing centrally should not be ignored. Pace is one attribute that Zlatan does not offer, and may have tested Chelsea’s back line more on the day.
Paul Pogba is still not delivering anything like the dominating performances that were alluded to in the hype surrounding his superstar arrival. His role in the side is still not defined and seems to change from game to game, playing as part of a midfield two, or roaming around up front. Despite a good performance against Fenerbahce on Thursday, he has not produced in the big games. Every week I expect him to start to justify his billing, and he continues to drift in and out of games, offering flashes of quality, but also not carrying out the basic duties expected of a supposedly already world class midfielder. It is a concern, and whilst few doubt that he will come good, I would rather that it came sooner rather than later.
Eric Bailly has been the stand out success of the new arrivals and he sustained what has been reported as a significant knee ligament injury and may well be out for a prolonged period. He was sorely missed when he left the field, and his replacement Marcos Rojo can only be described as a liability. It is baffling that he gets anywhere near a match day squad given his inherit gift for presenting chances to the opposition. There are other options to come into the defence, but none of Bailly’s quality and they will now have to cope without him for an important run of fixtures.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment, wrapped in a mystery, has been the minimal involvement of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Maybe details will emerge in the coming weeks to explain why he is not featuring in match day squads, but he arrived with big expectations and has only started, with disastrous consequences, in the Manchester derby. With him being declared fit again, the hope is that he gets a run in the side and gets a chance to show why he was tipped to be the signing of the summer. To date, he has spent more time sitting with the spectators than getting them off their seats.
5) This was just one of those days
The fact is, this was just one performance. Three points lost. There were circumstances that conspired against United: the early goal, David Luiz not getting a red card, and catching Chelsea in red hot form. You would not have predicted this result as there had been green shoots of improvement ever since the debacle against Watford away.
The important thing from this point is the response. Mourinho does not routinely get beaten like this, and the truth is that this will probably be looked back upon as an ablution. Even Sir Alex suffered the indignity of the 1-6 reverse at home to Man City on the same date five years ago. It can happen and on the day the performance was disastrous.
The crumb of comfort is that it seems to be shaping up to be another unpredictable and competitive year in the Premier League. Although Manchester United have fallen off the pace of the leaders, if they can put together a sequence of results from this point going forward, there is no one side that looks to be setting an unachievable pace. What is concerning though, is that on Sunday, United looked like a side that had significant problems in every area of the pitch. In the past, Mourinho has had an instant impact with the clubs he has managed, showing steady progress from the start. We are still in October, but at this stage Jose seems to have more questions than answers.
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