When the end of the season rolls in, Jose Mourinho, far from the cameras, will doubtless conduct a very intense and private inquest.
The main question will be just what went wrong. How, in a season which featured 21 unbeaten league games and counting, his team transpired to be so far from title contention? During that reflection, he may ponder how the Europa League, which was probably no more than an afterthought in August, has recently become this season’s last real chance of redemption.
Though he is of course no fool, there is a very good chance that he underestimated the scale of the challenge ahead of him. Those with reasonable memories will remember that, following a summer of spectacular recruitment in the transfer market, there were many who considered United to be one of the favourites for the Premier League.
That may have seemed a fair assessment — in Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho had signed three of the leading assist-makers from the top divisions in Germany, Italy and France. This looked like an unparalleled addition of firepower — this team would now have the speed and subtlety to break down both deep-lying defences and those who played a high line. In August, too, United seemed to be calling upon a host of attacking riches, to the extent that Memphis Depay was a fifth-or-sixth-choice forward.
It is important to recall all this, because Mourinho must ask himself where all the goals have gone. True, there has been some poor finishing from forwards in his squad. But the brutal fact remains that United have scored only one more goal in the league than Bournemouth, the side they defeated 3-0 in the opening game of the season. They have scored 19 fewer than Chelsea and 22 fewer than Liverpool.
This is not an individual failure, it is a systemic one. Ryan Giggs alluded to this recently when he commented — in a comparison that seemed heretical, but attracted little outrage — that United should try be more like Liverpool, who are managing to find goals from all over the pitch.
The truth, as Giggs seems to perceive, is that United are not so much one team as two. The first United team is the defensive unit, which is relatively robust — the second-best in the division, behind only Tottenham Hotspur, having conceded only 24 times in 30 matches. That is a formidable record, and for that Mourinho should be applauded.
The second United team is its midfield and attack, and their performance has been substantially below the standard that almost everyone expected. Mourinho of course knows this, which is why he took the unusual step of so broadly criticising so many of his attacking players for not scoring enough goals.
The fault here, though, is his. Mourinho has certainly made notable progress since Louis van Gaal’s departure, but in one respect the two coaches are stubbornly similar — they are too slow in moving the ball between defence and attack, and allow opposing teams too much time to regroup and sit deep against them.
This was most recently seen by Mourinho’s deployment of Marouane Fellaini against Sunderland in midfield last weekend. Fellaini, named captain that day — a decision which bemused many, but which was presumably a reward for how attentive he has tried to be to Mourinho’s instructions — carried out his brief in solid fashion. He completed around 90 percent of his passes, and helped United to ensure a clean sheet. Yet his distribution lacked ambition and urgency, and highlighted that for all United’s supposed attacking riches, the midfield is where United desperately need to make further recruitment.
The finger may inevitably be pointed at Pogba, with many asking why the world’s most expensive player is not able to manage the flow of the ball through midfield. Pogba, however, is not best suited to being an orchestrator. Though he has many gifts, he is not Toni Kroos. Watching Juventus make their way to the final of the 2015 UEFA Champions League, we saw a midfield in perfect balance — one where Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio provided the toil, Andrea Pirlo the strategy, and Pogba the fantasy.
In Ander Herrera, United have toil and tactical intelligence. In Pogba, United have fantasy. But they still need their chief strategist, and they may look around the world’s best clubs with envy at Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti, Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta and Real Madrid’s brilliant pairing of Kroos and Luka Modric.
This is why, although United will be linked for months to leading strikers, these enquiries will largely be missing the point. The whole point of Mourinho’s tactics at present is that he asks a huge amount from his forwards. His full-backs are not particularly creative — one of them, in this present case Matteo Darmian, always seems to sit far deeper than the other, and the other one, until recently Antonio Valencia, gets forward often but is not the best of playmakers.
This means that Mourinho’s attackers are often asked to rely upon their individual brilliance against massed defences — not an impossible challenge by any means, but one to which very few players in world football are suited. Hence why United are repeatedly being linked with Antoine Griezmann, who has spent most of the last two seasons being spectacular in a team which is most noted for its defensive intensity.
But for Mourinho’s team to flourish, he needs to give his forwards more help. The hunt for a chief strategist, and not merely someone who can diligently shield the back four, must therefore be one of this summer’s greatest priorities.