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Watford 3 – 1 Manchester United. What a score line! After I read Chris Smalling’s pre-match comments, stating it would be “unacceptable” if the Reds lost a third consecutive game, and proclaiming that “we make sure that we stand up and be counted on Sunday because we’ve got a big result to get”, I was content in the knowledge that my beloved team would return to winning ways. Of course we all know that what followed was a disjointed and shambolic performance that would have made David Moyes blush. Nevertheless, let’s reflect on what we learned…
1) Mourinho is under the microscope
The last article I wrote was following the euphoria of a last minute winner against Hull way back on 27th August, which led us into the international break on the high of 4 comfortable wins from 4 games. Luke Shaw, albeit somewhat depressingly, described that joyful moment as the best he had experienced in football. I gushed about the winning mentality that Jose Mourinho had already managed to instil into the team, and that they were already mirroring his driven intensity and playing with renewed vigour and arrogance. High praise indeed.
Well, I don’t like to use corny football clichés so I’ll promise that I’ll only use this one, but a week is a long time in football.
The huge hype surrounding the Manchester derby meant that whatever happened, the result would be blown out of proportion. What we saw was a completely dominant City performance for the first half. Mourinho came in for criticism due to his surprising, and in all honesty quite bizarre, team selection. Playing Jessie Lingard ahead of both Rashford and Martial, accommodating Rooney out wide, and leaving Fellaini to try and cope with Silva and De Bruyne on his own was never going to work, and he was slow to make any effort to stem the tide. However, the performance did improve in the second half, and it was forgivable to lose on the day to what is already clearly (and unfortunately) a formidable Pep Guardiola side.
The Feyenoord result followed, which was more concerning. However, it was written off in most media circles as a below par performance due to a raft of changes and unfit players. But this Watford game has people asking genuine questions about Mourinho. Has he lost his touch? Has football moved on again and left him behind? I even heard a local radio station today asking listeners if they think he’ll make it to the end of the season.
It is far too early to question Mourinho’s tactics, methods, team selection, or summer acquisitions. However, some relevant observations have been made and widely reported. Sunday’s game was not what we expect from a Mourinho side. The shape of the team was a mess. The formation had changed from his tried and tested 4-2-3-1. The team selection had changed again. He failed to make effective changes early in the game. Watford were allowed to carve out easy chances against a shaky defence and a defensively incompetent midfield. Perhaps it’s an indication of the standard of opposition faced in the first few games, but the team appeared to have completely regressed from the positive and confident start that had been made to the season.
We also unfortunately saw the snarly, belligerent Mourinho again post-match where he refused to give an honest assessment of the game. The truth is that United deserved to lose, and although with 7 minutes to go they were in the game and it could have potentially gone the other way if Zlatan had put away a good headed opportunity, Watford had the better chances over 90 minutes. They didn’t even have to play all that well themselves in order to win. Yet Mourinho blamed the referee for the debatable foul on Martial, claimed they had dominated the game, and were hard done by.
A lot of the good will that was built up from a pleasing opening four matches has already begun to erode, if not with supporters, then certainly with the media. The Manchester United job is up there with the biggest in world football, under the constant shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson. The microscope is always on you; but when you lose three consecutive matches, in the manner they have been lost, having spent a huge amount of money including breaking the world record transfer fee, it gets red hot.
2) Wayne Rooney is being accommodated
The fall-out from the match has mainly focussed on Wayne Rooney. United fanzine Red Issue ran a poll this morning asking should Wayne Rooney be dropped, and the result was 99% of votes saying yes. And there is a 1% margin of error.
This debate has been gathering steam for a few years now and despite the baffling insistence of virtually every ex-pro claiming he is undroppable and England’s most talented player, the truth is he hasn’t produced anything close to a dazzling performance in years.
It genuinely is baffling that he hasn’t yet been pushed out of the side for club or country. In fact, Sam Allardyce seemed to recently suggest that he was actually Assistant Manager to Rooney. Mourinho was emphatic that Rooney was a forward, a ‘9’ or a ‘10’, and yet already, in the 5th league game of the season, has squeezed him into midfield in a re-modelled side. Last week he spent periods playing out wide. Why? The depth of the squad is huge. He is keeping actual, genuine, class midfielders out of the team! Carrick, Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, Herrera, Mata. And playing wide he was keeping out Martial, Rashford, Depay, Lingard, and previously Mkhytarian. What is going on? A lot of speculative articles have started to surface suggesting outside influences are keeping him in the side as opposed to what is happening on the pitch. It would certainly explain a lot, but hard to believe Mourinho would stand for it. It has reached a fever pitch very early in the season and will be interesting to see if the axe will be wielded.
Sunday’s defeat was not Rooney’s fault, it is a neat narrative and topical for discussion, but there were many problems with the performance. However, I don’t even see a debate any longer that Rooney is a problem. Of course he still has qualities, but better options are now available in any position you could think of playing him, and he should be dropped.
3) Leadership may be a problem
To follow quickly on from my assassination of Rooney, I think it is apparent that there is a lack of characters in the side. Zlatan stands out as an assured winner, but beyond that maybe it is Rooney’s stature and respect within the game that keeps him in the team. If you look through the side without him, there are no obvious candidates to captain the side, and there wasn’t anyone who seemed to take it upon themselves to be the on-pitch influence that sorted out the mess that the team slipped further and further into as the game ticked on.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think Bastian Schweinsteiger could make a decisive difference to this team. He definitely has limitations now in terms of his mobility and ability to stay fit, but with this doubtlessly talented squad, why would you banish and humiliate a World Cup winning captain to train with the youth team? He had a disappointing debut campaign at the club, but there were games he showed tremendous quality when he was able to dictate and control the game. That’s the sort of performance and influence they needed on Sunday. Schweinsteiger has a presence and an aura, and the respect he has from his team mates is obvious. He demands the ball and can recycle it quickly and progressively. Who knows what has happened behind the scenes but to refuse to use him or even name him in the European squad resembles cutting off a beautiful nose to spite a poorly constructed face.
4) Fellaini is not a holding midfield player
Ok, I’ll come clean, I am not a fan of big Marouane, and I never have been ever since seeing his generous use of his elbows when that Scottish manager first brought him to Everton. Of course he has obvious qualities, and the fact he has that hair proves he has a good sense of humour, but he simply isn’t a Manchester United player.
He is not a holding midfielder, and I’m not quite sure what he actually is. He is a player that is accommodated because he is physical and useful at set pieces. Those qualities are not what you expect a ‘big club’ to seek in their lynchpin midfielder. It is what you expect from clubs that don’t have players with the ability to compete with the gifted, elite players and so try to level the playing field by employing strength over skill.
It’s not Fellaini’s fault that he gets picked. He tries his hardest and is a committed and good professional. But this big Belgian monstrosity is keeping proper, talented, blessed midfielders that we already possess out of the side.
This is what worries me about the early tendencies of Mourinho. This Manchester United squad is good enough to win the league. They have enough depth and talent to compete with Manchester City and anyone else. But, early days though it is, they are not playing with the style and dominance that they should be. Guardiola has taken his squad of under-performing players and quickly had them adopt his methods and tactics, meaning a decent left back like Aleksandar Kolorov is looking like Franz bloody Beckenbauer. It is unfair to compare Mourinho to Guardiola, and that type of change is not what we expected, but I had hoped that he would seek to embrace the footballing traditions of Old Trafford, and I just don’t feel Fellaini is someone who is going to lead back to the summit of European football.
5) Paul Pogba may take time to find his feet
Paul Pogba has had a difficult week, as he has been ineffectual in the three defeats. However, he has still shown glimpses of his enormous quality, such as his 30-yard pile driver that cannoned off the crossbar against Watford.
However, when you are the most expensive player in world football you are expected to be the difference that makes the difference, and he has not reached those levels despite his lively debut against Southampton. Despite this, he is a player who still excites me and I have seen enough to be confident that he will find his form and be a huge player and presence within the side.
It is debatable what system and position allows you to get the best out of him, and the common theory is that he would be best in a three-man midfield beside two actual midfield players who are not Rooney or Fellaini. I think the fact he has played alongside them has made it more difficult to get forward and influence the games the way he might like.
He has received criticism for his performances, but he is one player who must play, as we know he is a special talent and should improve as his match fitness increases and he is given more licence to get forward and roam with greater freedom.
So with all those negatives, hopefully whatever team takes to the field against Northampton on Wednesday night will show a marked improvement, and Jose will stumble upon a formula for success.
In what has felt like an almost exclusively negative week, I should finish with the positive that I saw on Sunday: we have Marcus Rashford. Every time I see him he is a ray of sunshine in my life, and although Sunday was far from his best game, he still scored a goal through his scorer’s instinct, and was his usual positive and direct threat. The other positive I took was Luke Shaw’s performance, as he looks back to full fitness, and offers tireless and pacey work rate down that left side of the pitch.
As poor as Sunday was, a response is bound to come and these players and manager must be motivated to prove themselves amidst the growing criticism they have received. Fortitude in adversity.
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