Ryan: [Understatement alert!] It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Manchester United.
Defeat to rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford the week before last, highlighted some of the deficiencies in the United squad; the midfield lacks balance, the best combination of wingers is not yet known, and the tactical plan needs serious work.
And in the days since the Manchester derby, those weaknesses have been further exposed. First, in the Europa League defeat against Feyenoord, then, on Sunday in a 3-1 Premier League loss to Watford.
The optimism fostered by the club’s three wins from the first three league fixtures has been eroded; it’s all doom and gloom around Old Trafford right now.
But, although United’s problems run deep, they are fixable. It’s just a case of the manager identifying the issues and finding appropriate solutions. It’s not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, but José Mourinho has the experience and track record to be trusted to put things right.
So, let’s put ourselves in the gaffer’s immaculate Armani loafers and see if we can figure things out.
Andi, what do you think has gone wrong of late? And what actions would you take to help right the ship?
Andi: For me, and leaving aside personnel issues for the moment, there are three factors that have contributed to United's peculiar run of three defeats.
The first, refereeing decisions, is entirely out of United's hands and not particularly interesting to talk about, so I'll just say that while I don't think this is the main contributory factor, and certainly don't want to get conspiratorial, it's not hard to imagine a world in which United get a penalty (and maybe a red card) against City, where Feyenoord's offside goal gets flagged, and where Watford's opener is ruled out. And so we'd maybe be looking at a couple of draws, which would be a more relaxed context in which to consider the other problems.
The second is what I suppose we might call individual mistakes, but are maybe just as likely to be down to the inevitable changes introduced when a new manager brings new systems and a changing lineup. Things like Watford scoring two identical goals because nobody's got the runner from midfield, or — as Mourinho pointed out — a failure to close down the opposition full-backs leading to goals against City and Watford. That stuff will be addressed with time and training; as the manager says, "In a couple of weeks, everything like this becomes perfect."
The third is the most concerning, which is the extreme lack of pace and imagination in attack. This might just be the dead hand of Van Gaal weighing heavily on the team; certainly, United do still look to pass back and around more than is pleasant to see. But then, United's attacking players are very static a lot of the time. As with the above, some of that will (hopefully) improve as the players get more familiar with their manager and his systems. As it stands, however, United are both predictable and slow in both thought and movement, which is a terrible combination.
Ryan: You make a fair point, and one that has been rather conveniently glazed over, in mentioning how some key refereeing errors have been costly for United. But to harp on about such matters puts us at the risk of being accused of whining, and, in fairness, United’s overall performances didn’t warrant anything more than they came away with from those games.
And you can only control the controlables, so that means dealing with matters in-house.
For me, Mourinho’s set-up seems a little conflicted so far. There’s an obvious desire to exert a certain amount of physicality, as is his wont, while also wanting to play progressively.
For example, the plan against City appeared to be that Mourinho had accepted that Pep Guardiola’s side would dominate the ball, and he’d pinpointed the space in behind their full-backs as a potential avenue to launch counter-attacks into. With that in mind, he started Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to bring pace to the wide areas, but went with Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini in a deep double pivot, and Wayne Rooney ahead of them as the No.10. Neither Rooney nor Fellaini are well suited to acting quickly in transition and playing on the counter, so the plan inevitably failed.
The same goes for the issues you mentioned from the Watford game; you want Fellaini as a physical presence deep in midfield, but he’s not adept at tracking runners or knowing where he needs to be when play breaks down.
It seems as though United want to build from the back and give Pogba freedom to get forward, but the selections in midfield have not been condusive to bearing that out.
There’s a balance issue which, hopefully, is being worked out. And then, as you say, there’s the issue of pace and creativity higher up the pitch. It feels like there are a lot of square pegs being crammed into round holes right now, and we’re all waiting for the eureka moment when Mourinho finds the right blend of players and everything clicks.
Has this recent run affected you’re pre-season hopes/expectations?
Andi: Not hugely, but then I try to have a policy of not making any strong conclusions about anything until at least halfway through the season. Particularly when there's a third new manager in four seasons and four new first-team players to consider.
Actually, that's not quite true. I have been surprised with the speed with which United's dressing room has sprung a leak. The 'David Moyes banned chips, the big meanie' stories came late in the season, if memory serves; here we already have one (presumably senior) professional informing everybody that Mourinho's being more "nasty and personal" than Alex Ferguson ever was.
First of all, and given what we know of the hairdryer, I sincerely doubt that's true. Secondly, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Because after three years of mixed-to-poor results and mixed-to-poor performances, my guess is that Mourinho has a far more secure position in the club than most of the dressing room. There aren't many undroppables in this squad.
Leaving Northampton aside for the moment, since that'll probably be quite an experimental line-up, United have three home games in a row coming up — Leicester City, Zorya Luhansk, and Stoke City — before a tricky sequence of Liverpool away, Fenerbahce at Old Trafford, and Chelsea away. Are you expecting dramatic changes for the Leicester game?
Ryan: Yeah, the amount of media leaks is a little worrying. It gives the impression that (some of) the players are coddled cry-babies, which isn’t a good look.
I’m not anticipating wholesale changes for the Leicester game. There are rumours circulating that Rooney will be benched (which perhaps has led to some of the recent leaks from the dressing room) but we’ll have to wait and see. So far, Mourinho hasn’t even considered substituting Rooney towards the end of games, so it’ll be a big leap for him to banish the captian from the starting XI -- even though it seems like a necessary change.
I think Mourinho is pretty sure about his core first-teamers, so de Gea, Eric Bailly, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia, Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will continue to start. But then it is a matter of who fits in around those players, and finding the right personnel to help the best players thrive.
I hope Mourinho persists with the 4-3-3 formation, as I believe it’s the best long-term option for the players we’ve got, and I’d like to see Ander Herrera in the midfield three alongside Pogba, with one of Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin and Daley Blind as the holding player at the base of the trio.
I’d expect Marcus Rashford to keep his place, and I think Juan Mata will probably come back in on the right.
Do you see much change to the line-up over the next few weeks? And are you confident of a win on Saturday?
Andi: I tend to agree that we'll get a few more weeks of Rooney at a minimum (and maybe more if his and the team's performances improve). For all that he does seem to clog things up wherever he plays, he ticks various other of Mourinho's boxes, most notably high-level experience.
The Michael Carrick question is very interesting, not least because he's the only option we haven't really seen yet. Obviously, at his advanced-for-a-footballer age he's never going to be a dynamic central presence in the middle, but he's a generally calm presence, and if his passing still works then he could be an effective foil for the energy of Herrera and Pogba. Or, more likely, Rooney and Pogba.
Rashford has to play, I think, which is an odd thing to say about such a young player. But he looks unfazed where older heads are bowed, and he scores goals, and those are both useful. Given Leicester will presumably look to sit back and then break, I would ideally like to play a chimerically-spliced combination of Mata and Mkhitaryan on the other side, the former to bring a bit of creative passing and the latter to offer pace should the team get turned around. But failing that, Mata's probably the call.
And no, sadly, I'm not confident of a win. Leicester are dangerous, if not quite as dangerous as last season, and they won't have any objection to sitting back and waiting for the gaps to appear. We should hammer Stoke the week after, though. Stoke are rubbish.