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Where does Manchester United’s season go from here?

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The title race may be almost over, but there’s plenty of football left in this season.

Manchester United v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Following Manchester United's defeat in Sunday's derby, Jose Mourinho was asked if the title race was over. And he appeared to concede, in his own gracious, inimitable way:

Probably, yes. Manchester City are a very good team and they are protected by the luck, and the gods of football are behind them.

Leaving this turn to theology aside, there's still the small matter of the rest of the season to be getting on with. United may be 11 points behind, but there are still a fair few months to go, and plenty of football matches to be played. Here's what we're hoping United manage to do over the rest of the campaign.

Sort out the defending

For all City's possession, and their pretty passing patterns, their two goals came after United failed to clear set pieces. This may be down to personnel, at least in part. It doesn't excuse or explain the loss, but it is worth noting that United's loss on Sunday came without Phil Jones or Eric Bailly, who are probably United's first choices in central defence. We don't have a return date for Bailly, but Jones was on the bench for Sunday's game and should, if fully fit, return to the starting lineup.

But whoever's been playing, it's been an odd theme of the season: United look generally solid, and then somebody does something odd. Poor defensive clearances, bad organisation at set pieces, missed headers, slips, stumbles … there is a self-destructive streak to this team. Which isn't just a problem, but a fundamental failure to implement the Mourinho Doctrine. If you're giving the ball to the other lot, but still making the mistakes, then something's going wrong. There is simply no point to a Mourinho side with a soft underbelly.

Find some way of attaching Romelu Lukaku to the rest of the team

On one level, it's easy to criticise Romelu Lukaku's recent performances. He was bought to score goals. He is not scoring goals. So, he is not doing the thing he is supposed to do. And so, he is playing badly.

Except it isn't quite that straightforward. Against City, he was pretty ordinary: even beyond the botched clearances at wrong end of the pitch, he looked laboured and uninvolved, and he planted his best chance straight into the goalkeeper's head.

Against Arsenal, a week earlier, he also failed to score. But that was pretty much the only thing the two performance had in common: at the Emirates, Lukaku was a menace in the lone striker role, and made important contributions to two of United's three goals.

The most obvious point of comparison is that City are a significantly better team than Arsenal. The second most obvious is the absence of Paul Pogba. The Frenchman seems to be the only United midfielder capable of stitching Lukaku to the rest of the team: he can slip around pressing opponents; he can spot gaps in and behind defences, and drop the ball into them; and, by his very presence, he sucks defenders away from his colleagues.

Perhaps "capable" is the wrong word there. Pogba also seems to be the only United player permitted — trusted? — to play with freedom and ambition from the middle of the pitch. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has drifted from first-team reckoning, while Juan Mata is limited to cameos in wide positions. Whether this is down to poor squad-building or a cowardly approach isn't quite clear, but the contrast with City's multi-focused attack was pointed, and more than a little embarrassing.

Plenty of sides have a dominant creative force, of course, and most of them would miss their best player if he picked up an idiotic and unnecessary suspension. But it is quite remarkable the extent to which United depend on Pogba, and it is stark the extent to which Lukaku waxes and wanes accordingly. Maybe the solution can be found on the training ground; maybe there's one out there in the transfer market.

Until then, every conversation about whether Lukaku is good enough when he gets the ball is going to be have to be couched inside a wider conversation about whether United are good enough at getting it to him. We know Pogba is. We're not sure about the rest.

Take advantage of a nice-ish run of games

Before United's next game against another member of the Big Six — a trip to Wembley on January 31 — they play Bournemouth, West Brom (away), Leicester City (a), Burnley, Southampton, Everton (a), Stoke City, and Burnley (a), along with Derby County and Bristol City in the cups. Several of those games will be tricky, particularly overachieving Burnley and Leicester, who have been revived under Claude Puel. And there is the possibility of a League Cup semi-final in the middle of January.

But all are winnable. And perhaps even more importantly, none are the kind of high-profile occasions that seem to weigh so heavily on United's manager, and send nervous shivers through his squad. As exciting as these big games are, you get the feeling that United could do with a run of ordinary-sized fixtures, some mundane Saturdays. A couple of goals for Lukaku, perhaps. A couple of quiet afternoons for David de Gea. A chance for everybody to calm down a little bit and remember that United are second in the table and not completely useless. A chance for the team to start playing like it.

And if City do slip up? Well, it'd be nice to have some points on the board. Just in case.

Make certain of progress in the cups

If United are to come away from this season with something shiny and tangible, then they will — barring something unlikely and hilarious — have to do so in the cups. The big bag of balls was kind enough to hand United lower league opposition in both domestic competitions; not gimmes, but United will be favourites.

Then there's Europe. United's opponents in the Champions League round of 16 are Sevilla, who made Liverpool look reasonably silly in the group stage. However, United have one great advantage over their north-western neighbours, which is that they can defend. Most of the time. The games against Sevilla don't arrive until late February and early March, and the quarter-finals don't take place until April. Plenty of time for United to find some form.