Back in the heady days of August, with Jose Mourinho giving bold news conferences that seemed to herald a return to the glory days of yesteryear, this probably isn’t the season that most people at Old Trafford envisaged.
Manchester United are 13 points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea, having drawn six and won just one of their last eight league games. As they prepare to face Zorya Luhansk in their final Europa League group game, they must contend with the reality that it is now only cup competitions which carry a realistic chance of glory.
Given the huge sums that were spent this summer, this situation represents a very poor return on the investment. Nonetheless, the Europa League cannot now be sniffed at.
Liverpool, who are doing so well in domestic football this year, used the competition as an excellent springboard as they made it to the final against Sevilla. Moreover, United are in need of fresh momentum, and they are currently having more joy in Europe than at home. To be sure of making it through to the round of 32 after Christmas, they will need to earn at least a point in the Ukraine.
The unfortunate news for Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay is that they will not be joining their club in making the long-haul flight. Both players have been excluded from the squad of 19 for the match in Odessa, which represents Mourinho’s total absence of faith in them with multiple sources revealing interest from Everton.
For Schneiderlin, this omission is even more brutal, given that the rested Michael Carrick and the ineligible Bastian Schweinsteiger will not be travelling, and also given that Marouane Fellaini’s latest appearance helped to hand Everton a 1-1 draw.
Schneiderlin performed well on occasion under former boss Louis van Gaal, but even then was not trusted to start the biggest matches — most notably, and inexplicably, the 3-0 evisceration by Arsenal at the Emirates — and that sad trend has continued for him under Mourinho.
Mourinho might observe that Schneiderlin has been poor when he has been given an opportunity, especially in the 1-0 defeat away to Feyenoord, but the France midfielder was far from the only culprit that night. He seems the logical stand-in for Carrick, offering greater stamina and defensive intensity, if lacking the perceptiveness and range of the Englishman’s passing. At the age of 27, and with 15 caps for his country, he will probably feel entitled to regular football — and if so, he is probably best to look elsewhere.
A fair amount of eyes will be on Wayne Rooney, who is back in the squad after being suspended at Everton, and who may soon overtake Sir Bobby Charlton as the club’s leading scorer. He currently has 248 goals for United, only one behind Charlton, and his recent improvement in form is one reason why Depay finds himself pushed further to Old Trafford’s margins.
On his arrival, of course, Depay was seen as one of United’s new generation of stars, but it is striking how fast that promise has faded. Meanwhile, Rooney pushes on, perhaps galvanised by the thought of Charlton’s record, and there should be a good chance that he is joined in the line-up by Juan Mata — a player who has been unlucky to be omitted of late, since he has been one of United’s best performers this year.
Indeed, if Mata’s teammates were as decisive as him, United might be in the Premier League’s top four. If there is some way that he can complement Henrikh Mkhitaryan, rather than replace him, then the team stands to benefit greatly over the rest of the season.
Against Zorya, a midfield axis of Herrera and Paul Pogba might allow Mata and Mkhitaryan to combine effectively alongside any two from Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Anthony Martial. This might be a game where it would make sense to bench Ibrahimovic, even though he has been scoring at a decent rate.
Mata is always at his best when surrounded with speed, and the game against Zorya — who despite being third in the Ukrainian league have drawn one and lost three of their last four — might be the ideal place to try this combination. This would necessitate a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Rooney as the lone striker and Martial and Mkhitaryan either side of Mata, but it could be effective against a team low on confidence.
The key to the success of such an attacking formation would be the defence, which will thankfully be bolstered by the return of Eric Bailly from injury. Bailly may not start this game, but if he does he would allow Daley Blind to be deployed at left-back, a position from which he has proven excellent.
The sheer number of ambitious passers in this team should lead to the creation of several chances, yet United’s shyness in front of goal remains a concern. Despite that worry, a point looks well within their reach.