By Matthew Galea
Well, what a terrible week that was for Manchester United.
Three games, three losses, six goals conceded, two goals scored.
Whichever way you look at it, it has been an incredibly poor week and just like that, all the optimism and confidence built over three-straight wins to start the Premier League season has completely deserted the fans – and seemingly the players.
It is perhaps too soon to draw wider conclusions, maybe this was just a bad week, maybe Jose Mourinho is still working out what exactly his best team looks like, but here are five lessons from United’s 3-1 loss away to Watford.
REALITY SETS IN
If the 1-0 Europa League loss to Feyenoord midweek proved that Mourinho’s squad is not as deeply talented as first thought, then Sunday’s loss to Watford proved that perhaps the first team is not as amazing as previously thought, either.
Captain Wayne Rooney has once again been ousted as the main cause for United’s woes, but that is far too simplistic (more on Rooney later).
On the evidence of the last week, the more prudent conclusion is that United’s problems are far bigger than any one individual. As a team, there is a general lack of cohesion going forward and what looks like a series of square pegs for round holes is hindering United’s potential.
It is still early in the season and at the end of the day it has just been one bad week, but still, Mourinho must surely be seeing that there are flaws, if not in his squad then certainly in his gameplan.
The United squad has good, even some very good players, but finding the right formula is proving difficult.
So what is the solution? Maybe it is changing the roles of players within the current system. Maybe it is changing the system to suit the personnel Mourinho clearly believes in. Maybe it is dropping some players for others. Whatever it is, it is not a simple one and ultimately they are the decisions Mourinho has to seriously consider if United are to dig themselves out of this rut.
ROONEY NOT THE ONLY PROBLEM
Back to Rooney then.
Any notion that dropping the captain or giving the armband to someone else is naïve. That’s not to say that the eventual solution does not involve dropping Rooney, but bigger issues are at play.
Rooney did not play against Feyenoord and still United struggled to create many chances of note and looked every bit as bad going forward. So clearly, dropping him is not going to solve all of United’s problems.
Of all the players to try and play the number 10 this season, Rooney has had the most minutes, but he has also been the most effective in terms of goals and assists. At the same time, though, there have undoubtedly been long stretches of play where he has clearly not been good enough. He has misplaced crucial passes, scuffed several shots in decent positions and in general failed to inspire those around him.
I have always been of the opinion that Rooney should play up front and if Mourinho is willing to change up his system, then I would be interested to see how he would work up front in a more traditional type of two-striker partnership with Ibrahimovic. If he had played his whole career as an out-and-out striker, which is what Rooney is and always should have been, he would have broken United’s goalscoring record a long time ago.
But given it seems unlikely a huge change in system is to come, then the options are more limited. Play Rooney up front instead of Ibrahimovic or drop him and give a more natural number 10 – like Paul Pogba, Juan Mata or Henrikh Mkhitaryan – a proper shot at the role.
Still, neither solution guarantees results meaning Mourinho has to consider a wide range of issues before deciding to simply drop Rooney.
Having already seen that the likes of Rashford and Martial are more inclined to cut inside and get closer to goal than stretch the play and hold wider positions, perhaps it is time to consider playing more natural wingers in wide areas.
Rashford and Martial are two very dangerous players, but the lack of cohesion in the forward line suggests that playing both in wide roles has done little to improve United’s fortunes going forward.
There were instances at Vicarage Road where, as United advanced, both players tucked in to what was already a congested final third making it easy for Watford’s back four to effectively shut down United’s attack.
While Ibrahimovic obviously needs support, it perhaps does him no favours to have both wide men so narrow.
Memphis Depay has had limited time to show Mourinho what he is capable of this season and would provide a more traditional wide option. The same could be argued for Ashley Young and perhaps the answer lies in out-and-out wingers to widen the play going forward and create more space for Zlatan and Co. to work in the central areas.
Not even Paul Pogba can instantly solve Manchester United’s midfield troubles.
Pogba is not a defensive midfielder and is too isolated from those ahead of him to have a proper impact high up the field.
When he does get the ball, Pogba’s strength and ability to break the lines, dribble past opponents and win fouls is impressive.
The problem is, he seems to spend most of his time breaking the lines between defence and midfield as he carries the ball out of trouble for United.
I would much rather see those skills used breaking the ball out of midfield and into the forward line.
United have a huge range of midfielders with a huge range of skills. Marouane Fellaini to his credit has played well this season, and did a good defensive job up until he gave away the penalty for Watford’s third, but on the ball he does not have the passing range and midfield smarts of Michael Carrick and Daley Blind or the mobility and skill of Ander Herrera. Morgan Schneiderlin and – as unlikely as it seems – Bastian Schweinsteiger also provide decent options.
The parts of a quality midfield engine are there for Mourinho, he just has to pick the right ones.
While the performances over the past week have been concerning, it is important to remember that it is still early in the season.
United have a new manager, new players and apparently a new system. A great start to the season with the Community Shield and three-straight Premier League have perhaps given fans a bloated sense of how good this United team is.
Equally so, however, a bad week such as the one United have just had could similarly give a false impression of how bad it is. Mourinho might feel it is not prudent to panic and abandon what he is working towards on the back of three games – no matter how bad.
Given his experience and track record, I am willing to back him in.