3 things Mourinho must address before Sevilla tie
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has had ample complications to resolve before his side's match in Seville. United began the new year on a high note. The side won all their matches in January, without conceding a goal, save for the last against Spurs. That result proved another setback for the Red Devils' slim hopes in the title race. A week later they suffered defeat against relegation-threatened Newcastle United.
St James Park is a place where Mourinho always had problems but while Manchester United dropped points, City just sailed on as they have been doing all season. Pep Guardiola's side maintained their superior lead. The Sky Blues relentless pace makes it appear United are derailing at the most inopportune time. Consequently, Jose has had to sort some matters out before today's crucial tie against Sevilla.
The left-wing pickle
It was obvious when Alexis Sanchez arrived at Old Trafford he would assume the attacking role on the left side. And that is what happened. Mourinho started Sanchez on the left wing in every fixture the Chilean featured.
Anthony Martial, who had owned that role with double digits in goals and assists, was forced to play on the right side. Marcus Rashford’s first team chances have been limited since the Chilean arrived, both by injury and manager's preference, but the England international also prefers to play on the left side.
The battle between Martial and Rashford for the role had only just been decided when chef Sanchez began stirring the broth as well. However, the Chilean is more of a chocolatier in his play, sampling every attacking position on the field throughout a match.
His vibrant style never fails to catch the eye. We’ve already seen him dropping into deeper positions in search of possession. At times he even acquires a more central attacking role.
But the problem is United suddenly have a flurry of quality attacking players who all excel in the position to which Sanchez aspires. Martial is not that effective from the right side. Rashford is injured. Mourinho needs to encourage some unison within the ranks. Maybe a change in system will bring about better results.
Center back pairing
Phil Jones has been a consistent performer in United’s back line. He and Eric Bailly formed a phenomenal centre-back pairing to start the season. Fans have been eager for Bailly's return since he suffered a serious ankle problem in November. A brief cameo against Huddersfield in the FA Cup teased at the possibility.
Mourinho has relied on Chris Smalling to partner Jones in the Ivorian's absence. Marcos Rojo and Victor Lindelof were rotated in during cup matches. Lindelof is still not ‘Premier League ready’. Starved for minutes, Rojo has failed to hit last season's form since his own return from injury.
Bailly's two minutes on the weekend hardly make him match fit but Mourinho has revealed Jones is now injured and will not feature midweek. With Marcos Rojo also unavailable, Smalling and Bailly may start at the heart of the defence. The other options are Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian, neither of whom has played much in any position.
Depending on whom you believe, Paul Pogba is either ill or the boss is just sick of feuding with him. The Frenchman has been under scrutiny in recent weeks following some patchy displays. His form has dropped significantly.
Pogba’s playing style and hunger are such he always wants to be involved in the attack. He can spark one from anywhere on the pitch. Defensive responsibilities are not so eagerly embraced. Recent outings have been so bad the player has gone missing in games. Again, some would have you believe Mourinho has been forced to sub him off due to injury, although the Portuguese denies it. The entire episode is a worrying sign given how the manager's last tenure at Chelsea collapsed.
Those who aren't putting Pogba's struggles down to a rift between him and Mourinho suggest there is a clubhouse power struggle between the Frenchman and new arrival Sanchez. Pogba used to be the main man in the dressing room; things have changed since Sanchez’s arrival, they say. That’s a universal problem when there are multiple egos within a squad. A pecking order must be sorted. Mourinho may not be able to settle such a dispute if it exists, but he must find a way to hasten its resolution.
The last time Pogba played a full 90 minutes was against Burnley four weeks ago. Since then United have played five games. Pogba has featured in just three, including a substitute appearance. No manager enjoys seeing the expression on a player like Pogba's face when he is taken off in the 66th minute against a lesser team. United don't just need their big game players healthy and committed. They also need them in sharp form. Pogba hasn’t been the best player in United’s squad recently.
Mourinho reported Pogba as unavailable for the cup tie due to illness. Late reports have him training with the squad and available for the match at the Mestalla, a notoriously hostile ground. Technically, there is no natural replacement for Pogba in the current United squad. Yet, Mourinho still has options for the centre-mid role alongside Nemanja Matic. Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, and Scott McTominay have all featured recently.
Whoever the boss sends out to start the match will be irrelevant, however, if he has not sorted the underlying problems in his squad's chemistry.