Manchester United limp into the international break with some important questions to answer before Premier League play resumes on November 24. The coming weeks bring big opportunities to move up the table, but only if Jose Mourinho and his staff can sort out these pressing issues.
What to do with Romelu Lukaku?
It’s been a difficult season for Big Rom. After a record-breaking debut campaign at Old Trafford and a star turn at this summer’s World Cup, Lukaku has lost his scoring touch. He's tallied only four goals in as many months, instead looking a shell of the player who took the Premier League by storm a year ago.
That lethargic play finally caught up with him last month when Mourinho benched him for the Everton match. But, even though United defeated the in-form Toffees 2-1, Lukaku probably would have been restored to the starting eleven if not for a training ground muscle injury.
In the Belgian’s absence, both Marcus Rashford and Alexis Sánchez have been given a chance up top. Rashford struck a late winner against Bournemouth, but his biggest impact is the improved movement in attack. Mourinho hinted that Lukaku’s struggles in front of goal were negatively impacting his overall game.
Lukaku’s back in training and even earned a penalty at the Etihad during a substitute appearance. But it’s no longer a sure thing that he’ll just go straight back into the lineup. Barring the derby loss, the past two weeks have been United’s best stretch of the season — and that’s largely come with Lukaku on the bench. Now the manager must decide if those results came because he was out.
Will Paul Pogba miss any more time?
When Manchester United shocked the world by defeating Juventus in Turin, the club seemed destined to roll into the derby on a wave of confidence. But that wave crashed with the late news that Paul Pogba had picked up a knock and couldn’t play at the weekend. United just aren’t the same without Pogba patrolling midfield — and it showed again on Sunday.
“He was injured during the game in Turin,” Mourinho admitted before the derby. “He resisted. He felt that he could resist. He felt that it was such a crucial match for the team. He made that sacrifice for us, and then it was impossible for him to recover for this match.”
Pogba’s thigh injury forced him to bow out of the France squad and he’ll now spend the international break rehabbing at Carrington.
Unfortunately, Pogba’s not the only United star to disappoint Didier Deschamps. Anthony Martial also skipped out on national team duty with a groin injury. It’s a bitter disappointment for United’s red-hot left winger because he’s been on the outskirts of Deschamps’s squad since last March and must now wait for another chance to reclaim his place.
Pogba and Martial are arguably Manchester United’s two most important players, so the club can ill afford for either to miss much time. Hopefully, two weeks without a match will do the trick.
Will Mourinho sit Nemanja Matić?
José Mourinho loves Nemanja Matić. That’s no secret. He’s twice bought the Serbian midfielder and relies on the big man to shield the backline and provide simple distribution to more attack-minded teammates. Unfortunately, Matić isn’t doing either this season.
Matic’s struggles have been obvious for weeks, but came into sharp focus late in the Manchester derby. With United trailing 2-1 and scrapping for an equalizer, Victor Lindelöf emphatically signaled for Matic to pick up Ilkay Gündogan in the box during a City attack. But Matić, suddenly slow of foot and mind, ignored the request and Gündogan ended the comeback with an easy tap-in. This is not the player of a year ago.
Giving Matić a rest would also allow Mourinho to experiment with a more technical midfield setup. In the season opener against Leicester City, Andreas Pereira and Fred started alongside Pogba in midfield, hinting at an engine room more in tune with the modern game. But, after a few lopsided defeats, the manager reverted to a bigger, more rugged midfield.
Physicality and size certainly have their merits, but this United squad cries out for creativity and technical skills. Even if it comes in a player well short of six feet.
Can the Reds string some wins together?
Before the Bournemouth match, José Mourinho was asked whether his side could mount a belated title challenge this season. “When you are outside the top four, I don’t think you should speak about the title,” he demurred. “In this moment, we are outside the top four so the point is now to get the points we need to try and be at the end of December in a better position than we are in now at this moment.”
“I think by the end of December, which is the end of the first half of the Premier League, we are not going to be in the position we are now. We will be in a better position.”
He’s not wrong. United’s schedule is about to get a lot easier. In the coming weeks, the Reds face relegation battlers like Crystal Palace and Southampton. Plus, with a chance to book a place in the Champions League knockout round with another win over Young Boys, United’s prospects should look a lot brighter by New Year’s.