Manchester United’s forwards are misfiring, but it’s Jose Mourinho who is mostly to blame
But it’s not clear how much blame rests with Zlatan Ibrahimovic et al, and how much with Mourinho himself.
First, if we have a look at the substitution he made to kill the game, there are already questions. Marouane Fellaini is a perfectly disruptive influence if he is used higher up the pitch, but he has already shown this season that defensively he is too buffoonish. It was Fellaini who allowed Leander Dendoncker to make the run into the box to equalise – that is not the fault of any attacker. Mourinho bears the blame because this was always possible, and Fellaini is responsible because he really should have figured out that he is meant to mark players. This is Football 101.
There is something risky about trying to win every game 1-0. Few teams can do it consistently, and that is probably why Mourinho is angry with his attack. Looking at the poor quality of his defensive players compared to the ability of those further forward, he can justifiably put the onus on winning the game on outscoring the opposition. Indeed, perhaps when Mourinho was talking up the attacking traditions of United earlier in the season, he was doing so cynically – far better to aim to win 2-1 or 3-1 when you know your team are unable to defend for 90 minutes.
This all means that Mourinho plainly expects more goals. In the past, some of his outbursts against referees and conspiracies have been self-made spectacles placed in front of credulous journalists in order to get United’s poor form off the back page. It’s boring, but it works, and so he will keep doing it when necessary. Mourinho has nothing to gain from starting beef against his forwards unless he really believes it take effect. Just as Luke Shaw and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have been kept out of the side until they behaved in the manner he sees fit, this public criticism is currently constructive – it is nothing like the dark ramblings of his latter days at Chelsea.
There are some obvious reasons why United are struggling in front of goal. The first is that they have plenty of the ball but they don’t get in behind the defence often enough. When they try to open up a defence in front of them, they are bereft of creativity or skill. Only rarely is Ibrahimovic able to score as he did against Sunderland.
Usually the goals come from a through-ball or a counterattack into space, which is absolutely fine, but not suited to creating chances against sides who have come for just a point. Either Mourinho is failing his players by not helping them with this in training, or the team suddenly transforms into a ponderous group as soon as they jog onto the pitch. On the balance of probabilities, the former is more likely than the latter.
The second, tied into the first, is the lack of movement. Players take up their positions: Zlatan in the middle, two wingers either side of him, and Mkhitaryan behind the three of them. Paul Pogba doesn’t burst late into the box. Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian rarely provide the option of the overlap. Players on the other side are rarely dragged out of their correct positions, and United are reduced to trying the same few passing moves and hoping something comes up. This is a team capable of variety, but not one which is producing it. Either all these players have forgotten how to mix up an approach in order to score, or they are, as mentioned before, doing as told.
Pogba’s position, and lack of runs, is also hurting the side and the player himself. We all already know how dangerous Pogba can be closer to the box, with his passing and ability to score from distance, but he rarely gets the chance. Mourinho might see Pogba – for now – as a Cesc Fabregas figure, creating from deep. His passes over the top have been tantalising this season and against Anderlecht last night he was inches from sending Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford through on goal on a few occasions. As the players become more in tune with one another, this will be resolved. But giving Pogba the licence to be more dangerous falls upon Mourinho. He might like the safety of two holding midfielders, which is a valid approach, but Pogba cannot be one of them in the longer term.
It is easy to blame Mourinho for the whole disappointment. He has Ibrahimovic, Pogba and Mkhitaryan, of course United should be attacking more, and of course they can be used more effectively. But the essence of Mourinho’s criticisms remain fundamentally accurate, too. After the game Mourinho aimed at all the attackers that, “We lost the ball easily too many times, we stopped our counter attacks because of sloppy touches, sloppy decisions.”
Rashford had the chance to get through on goal several times, but was shrugged off easily. Ibrahimovic rolled a ball into the path for Anthony Martial which was too strong, and Martial’s run was too late. Ibrahimovic missed an early chance from a Rashford cross, and Lingard shuttled about while showing none of the imagination that he briefly conjures up. Passing was slow and predictable, and controlling the ball was inconsistent. Were this all perfectly executed then, save for Brad Friedel suddenly appearing in goal, United would have been fine.
But this misses the point. Mourinho can be frustrated with his forwards, but fans have a right to expect that he improves his own input, too. The ultimate responsibility for both of these problems rests solely with the manager, which he should consider in his criticisms.