As Manchester United lost their second game in the last three – at St. James’ Park, after a performance that was as non-cohesive as it can be, got them what they deserved, which is to say, nothing. Even looking past Jose Mourinho’s strangely dubious record at Newcastle, the visitors’ lack of conviction and attacking plan against a side fighting to stay in the league with their previous win coming in October, was quite alarming.
It was not the first time that Manchester United looked utterly bereft of imagination in front of goal coupled with a mistake-laden defensive unit reminding everyone why David De Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world – for it has happened a few times this season, more often than a side with title aspirations should be home to. The Red Devils may be placed second in the league but given United’s numbers – they fit in a description of a side that has been efficient in front of goal without really dominating in long spells.
One of the key indicators of a top side is its frontman – the forward that bags all the goals and gets the team over the line time and again, home and away. Manchester United do have a few of those who they have relied upon in turns this campaign, but they still seem to get very little out of their main man who, given the right service, has all the ability in the world to top the goalscoring charts, as he has in the past. Lukaku – joining the Red Devils from Everton where he scored 25 goals for the Blues in a team that finished 7th in the league.
The Belgian has scored only 12 so far, and although part of it is down to his own lack of form, a case can be made for the system or the lack thereof that is failing the 24-year old. Romelu Lukaku is one of the most lethal poachers in the box and the fact that all 12 of his goals have come inside the area is testament to that. But under Mourinho, he has been used almost as a number ten in a 4-2-3-1 in a formation that not only fails to get the best out of him by drawing him deeper to get more involved on the ball but also stifles Paul Pogba – the architect in midfield, not allowing him to venture forward with freedom and finesse that a three-man midfield with extra protection could do.
Enter Sanchez and United have got another player in their ranks who would not mind being the main man and often accused of ‘trying too much’ on his own which could only further damage Lukaku’s opportunities in front of goal. It is easy to see why United don’t have a forward who could score 20 plus a season this campaign. Last year, the Red Devils played to the strengths of a 35-year old Zlatan Ibrahimovic as they vastly improved on chance creation and being positive and attack-minded – as they freed themselves from the shackles of Louis van Gaal.
Yet, this season – Manchester United, despite the early rampant showing in the league, have regressed in terms of creating chances in games, when compared to their fellow top six sides. In fact, United are the sixth best in the number of chances created in that mini-league and have attempted the least number of shots among the best six teams in the country. This is nothing but a sharp decline in attacking intent and a sign of the Portuguese reverting to type, being more cautious than adventurous in a bid to avoid any gung-ho situation that would drag them down to a scramble for fourth.
Although ironically with Liverpool breathing down their necks, Spurs consistent as ever, there is a real danger looming around Mourinho should he continue to play players out of position and not to their strengths in a bid to eke out a string of 1-0 results in the second half of the season when mental toughness is often stretched to its limits.
It was an approach that has previously worked when his side was leading the title race but now hinders one that is clearly not.