How Jesse Lingard's absence hurts Manchester United
Jose Mourinho played his last three Manchester United matches with a handicap. He couldn't call on Jesse Lingard to inject life into his attack. It's one of those problems that isn't immediately apparent but reveals itself when you look deeper, the sort of issue that can deny you three points.
United mixed results in their last three outings, a win, draw and loss. It's evident Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku are not simpatico on the pitch. The Frenchman's brilliant form obscures the fact but the other two struggle. Mourinho's noticed.
In the last nine matches between Lukaku and Rashford they have scored one goal if I am not wrong.
In fact, the entire midfield and attack lack cohesion. When they're linked, it's magic. Think Martial’s goal versus Newcastle. Paul Pogba moved through space at the top of the box, pulling defenders into his wake then backheeling the ball into the newly created space. Martial arrived a moment later to curl it inside the far post. A goal to make into legend and satisfy an adrenaline junkie's fix.
The problem is United don't combine as frequently as they should. Juan Mata proves his worth time and again. You saw him against Newcastle and Chelsea, but a creator alone is helpless with no one to finish his work.
Martial’s exploits are based on direct running and cutting inside, but he's restricted to the sideline. As a result, most touches are back towards United's half. He needs to be in more dangerous positions. As it stands, the threat from the left is restricted. With Pogba in a deeper role and Mata on the right flank, he rarely has a partner to play off.
Marcus Rashford receives full marks for effort and commitment, but he's searching for his touch. The youngster may find it with regular minutes. He bagged a promising assist against Chelsea. There’s still much to learn, starting with keeping his nerve.
Romelu Lukaku is the butt of all jokes again. A target man, he has it half right. The Belgian presents himself for clearances. Now he must man up to keep United in possession and finish free headers like the one that could have put Everton to bed on the weekend. His positioning has declined even further than his first-touch. Mourinho is patient but helpless through this dry spell. Someone must teach the Belgian to create chances for himself.
Pogba, Mata and Alexis Sanchez conjure opportunity all day long. Lukaku can't make his own space. He could learn to drop off a defender, throw a dummy run, be more a fox in the box than a lumbering bear. He considers Didier Drogba an older brother. Maybe he should solicit the Ivorian's advice.
United’s match against Juventus cast an intense light on the problem. Mourinho needs to teach positioning to almost the entire squad. The Portuguese was surely relieved to give Jesse Lingard a run-out against Everton. The academy product's built his United career on being in the right place at the right time.
Positioning and off-the-ball movement were Lingard's calling cards from the moment he broke into the team. Why do you think he scores important goals? Why do you think Mourinho relies on him? His bursting runs into the box and swift one-two touches to teammates create unanticipated emergencies for opposing defenders. Where did that come from?
Lingard was missed against Chelsea and Juventus. The static frontline waited instead of acting. Detractors blame Mourinho although the coach repeatedly claims he wants his squad to play with more freedom. Lingard takes matters into his own hands.
So does Paulo Dybala. The Argentine's positioning and off-the-ball runs made him a constant threat at Old Trafford. He'dd drop off the front three, pick up the ball in midfield, find a teammate, then sneak into the box for a return feed. His link-up with Cristiano Ronaldo is developing quickly.
If the Red Devils really want to challenge for the top-four, they need to start assessing their depth. United should start looking for more proactive attacking options in the January transfer window if those in-house don't want to get out of bed in the morning.