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Are Manchester United holding themselves back?

Monday 6th February 2017
What's the old adage? You can't win for losing? Manchester United have slightly altered the notion. They can't win for drawing. For the second time in 2017, United entered a match knowing they could make up ground on almost all the clubs above them in the Premier League table. With Hull City the opponent this time, rather than Liverpool, the contest was eminently more winnable.
Even against Jürgen Klopp's Reds, the game was there for the taking. Philippe Coutinho wasn't match fit having just returned from injury. Joel Matip was in eligibility limbo thanks to the Cameroon National Team's pettiness. Roberto Firmino, now banned as a result, had just been arrested for drink driving. Liverpool were on the brink of a Vinko Bogataj, suffering through the agony of seeing their title hopes defeated by a poor run of form. United, meanwhile, had been enjoying the thrill of victory at the peak of a long unbeaten run, winning their last nine. Yet, peaks are not plateaus, however much United supporters might wish. There is a downside to them. United's precipice was marked when the match ended in a draw.

While the result did extend their undefeated run to sixteen, and the subsequent standoff with Stoke made it seventeen, a loss to Hull in the EFL Cup semi-final's second leg formality suddenly put them in a three-match winless rut. United appeared solely interested in maintaining their two-goal aggregate from the first leg, when, maybe, they should have been looking to add to it and continue building their positive momentum.

A four-nil walk through the park against Wigan seemingly put United back in ascendancy. One would then have expected José Mourinho's side to enter their third encounter with Hull in less than a month looking for a bit of payback. They did pin back the Tigers' ears throughout the match. Goalkeeper Eldin Jakupović held them at bay with save after save, however, meaning, all too familiarly for United, a winnable match ended deadlocked. The goalless affair saw them match Middlesbrough's dubious league lead in stalemates, with nine.

United now have a pedigreed manager obsessed with winning trophies. He has dipped extensively into their world-topping revenues to purchase Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Eric Bailly. He spends still more to pay Zlatan Ibrahimović's exorbitant weekly wages although he was lucky to sign the top-knotted Swede on a free. Mourinho's squad is maybe the deepest, most talented in England. So, why can't they put opponents away?
One theory has been his teammates rely too much on Ibra. The drop-off from his fourteen league goals to next closest in the squad, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba on four each, is steep. Should the other nine outfield players in red be ignoring Zlatan in order to score more? ESPNFC's Gab Marcotti points out Ibrahimović takes an inordinate amount of shots (ninety and counting) and "has missed more big chances than any other player" (a dozen entering the Hull match).

Yet, Marcotti also noted Pogba has not made runs past the lead striker for United in the manner he did at Juventus. Perhaps the Frenchman is a closet Marcotti fanboy. Early in the first half, he charged past Ibra, flanking Hull's center-halves. The duo were focused on the big man, who was holding the ball with his back to goal. A back-heel flick split the pair. Pogba ran onto it but then shot too close to Jakupović, allowing the Bosnian-born Swiss international to make his first save. Had the volley tucked inside the post, perhaps the 'keeper's confidence withers rather than blossoms. If so, maybe the final scoreline more closely resembles the Wigan conclusion than Dilbert's specs.

Another question to ask is why, when Pogba came so close, he didn't look to make the same run again? Ibra's skill at laying off balls for teammates is sublime. He is Emile Heskey with technical skill and finishing ability. If his teammates are overly reliant on his scoring, maybe the real problem isn't their gifting him too much of the ball. More likely it's when they do, they believe their work is done, ignoring his talent for creating opportunities for others.

Over-all, Marcotti has suggested he has "no problem" with United's reliance are on their striker. He observed it has been the same everywhere the Swede has gone, his size and talent always making him a squad's best player. Marcotto specifically cited Barcelona, where, in his view, Pep Guardiola dropped him in order to play a more balanced style. Suggesting his Blaugrana teammates felt Ibra was the best player in a side with Lionel Messi is a difficult argument to make.
On the other hand, Messi's modus operandi was to make mazy runs inside from the deep right flank whenever he grew weary watching Xavi, Iniesta, et al tiki-taka the ball hither and anon. With a six-foot-five Bruce Lee wannabe in the box, the Argentine wouldn't be as likely to find defenders spread out upon arriving in the manner he'd come to expect when Barça were playing without an out-and-out striker.

At PSG, Zlatan thrived. Edinson Cavani was around to offer a second credible threat to prevent defenders from focusing entirely on Ibrahimović. At Inter, he had a young, yet to be disillusioned Mario Balotelli. At Milan, it was Robinho. Rumors United are looking to add two forwards in the summer make sense in light of the poor production from his current supporting cast. Still, the player most often identified is Antoine Griezmann. The Euro Golden Boot winner can finish, no question. That said, he is more of the same when you consider United already have Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the clubhouse. Speedy players who make dashing runs into the box, every one.
Is Griezmann superior to the other three? At Borussia Dortmund, Mkhitaryan's numbers surpassed the Frenchman's at Atlético Madrid. Martial contributed seventeen goals last season for United. Yet, the pair are in and out of the lineup. Mourinho has said regarding both, on different occasions, that they will play more consistently when they display better form. It sounds like common sense to give your best performers minutes. Yet, consistent form is akin to match fitness. If you don't play regularly, you don't have it.

José can send United's transfer man, Ed Woodward, into the next window with a shopping list targeting more of the same type of players he already has. Logic tells you results won't change. He should be looking for qualities he lacks. Given the depth of talent at his disposal, I'd further suggest he should be looking in-house.

What is lacking from United's squad? Simply put, a playmaker in midfield. The closest Mourinho believes he has is Michael Carrick from a deep lying role. You can't argue United is not a more effective side with the thirty-five-year-old in the starting XI. Unfortunately, he is thirty-five and not the fitness maniac/genetic freak United's other thirty-five-year-old is. At the campaign's outset, Mou claimed Carrick needed to be limited to one match per week.

I would love to play him every game but that is not possible. Why? For the same reason that I cannot go to the gym every day anymore.

Unfortunately, the side's inability to win without him has motivated the manager to overuse the player he believes to be his only effective facilitator. Carrick was replaced by Wayne Rooney after the interval in the Hull match. He'd been the victim of a nasty Oumar Niasse challenge which, at the least, should have earned the Senegalese a second yellow card. Nevertheless, bringing Rooney on completely changed United's tactics.
In the match's opening stages, Mourinho had channeled his inner Sam Allardyce. Carrick and Ander Herrera repeatedly launched long balls over Hull defenders for Rashford and Ibra to run down. Paul Pogba joined in, as well. The other Portuguese manager in the tilt, Marco Silva, had scouted his opposite number well, however. Eldin Jakupović repeatedly charged out to sweep away any danger, à la Manuel Neuer. Still, there was one occasion when the service was so perfect Rashford was able to bring it under control with a single touch. Unluckily, he exchanged control over his own body in order to do so, wobbling off-balance just enough to partially whiff on his shot attempt. The ball dribbled harmlessly past the far post, shepherded out of play by a Hull defender.

Rooney, who leads United with five assists, has been relentlessly coached by Mou not to come back into deep lying positions to retrieve the ball. Therefore, his presence brought the United midfield into a more advanced position. Rather than continue stretching Hull's defence the length of the pitch, Mourinho opted to force them wider, instructing the squad to work the ball back and forth. Switching strategies may have been effective were United more crisp in this aspect of their play. Instead, match in and match out, passes are slow and players take too long over the ball before moving it on. There isn't another player in Mourinho's preferred rotation with Carrick's vision and decisiveness. There is one on the bench. Perhaps even another at left back.
What Bastian Schweinsteiger must do to earn a more influential role is beyond me. After being frozen out to begin the season, he was reinserted into the first team when injuries and suspensions forced Mourinho's hand. Given five minutes or so at the end v West Ham, he was instrumental in setting up the final goal in a 4-1 victory. That earned him twelve minutes of mop-up duty against Reading in a 4-0 FA Cup win for United. Rashford scored a minute after he came on, although Schweini really didn't know much about it. Finally, he started in another four goal romp, this time against Wigan. He scored one goal and assisted on another. Admittedly, his over-exuberance in the box ruled out a fifth tally but Carrick couldn't have given a better performance, especially as his inability to shift beyond third gear means the Englishman rarely ventures so far forward. Schweinsteiger has yet to be trusted for meaningful minutes against a Premier League club but he deserves a chance.  The visit to Leicester might have been appropriate with Carrick scratched and dented, but United's number sixteen was seated with the substitutes with Basti left behind in Manchester.

If Basti isn't able to realize the only opportunity he is likely to get, if or when it comes, from a boss who has famously claimed he can evaluate a player from ten minutes on the pitch, Mourinho might consider easing Daley Blind into central midfield with next season in mind. The young Dutchman has experience there and, being the only teammate Carrick might be able to beat in a hundred meter dash, he would be less isolated against speedy attackers. Moreover, his strength at left back is his ability to pick out a pass or make the occasional late run into the box to score. Such skills are misused in the wastelands fullbacks are consigned to roam. Ashley Cole, John Arne Riise, and Marcelo are all gifted players who were/are more than one level above Blind. Yet, no one ever accused any of them of being the linchpin in a title-winning side. Roberto Carlos is remembered for his free kick against France but he had to jog over to the opposite side of the pitch to become a difference maker.

Taking the time to acclimate Blind to a more central role wouldn't affect United's depth at left back. At various points this season Luke Shaw, Matteo Darmian, and Marcos Rojo, as well as Blind, have started there for United. Even Henrikh Mkhitaryan has put in an emergency shift in the role. Blind's quiet effectiveness on the pitch is similar to Carrick's. If Ander Herrera partners best with the senior man, he might also be pleasantly surprised at the chemistry he develops with the junior.

Too make a long story short (I know, I know--too late), Mourinho has untapped options in his deep squad. The question is whether he has the courage and imagination to explore them.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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