Manchester United, at the time of writing, are running low on momentum – momentum which I argued was the buzzword under Mourinho in 2017/18, was almost willingly lost at Anfield in a draw that was devoid of everything the Red Devils were in the first two months of the campaign.
Mourinho paid the price at last for snapping a series of positive and attacking displays – trading off all the fearlessness the young forward line spearheaded by Lukaku, Rashford and Martial showed, for a point away from home against a Liverpool side, who are not very good at preventing the ball from getting into their net.
At Huddersfield, in a humble and soulful market town in Yorkshire – under the pouring rain, in front of raucous supporters, United looked second best at everything from the first whistle to the last and ended up getting beat, allowing league leaders Manchester City to open up a five-point gap at the summit.
It’s still very much ‘early doors’ but looking at the fixtures leading up to the highly anticipated Manchester derby in December, the impression is that the Reds would have to do very well to keep the now existing point gap intact, and that is saying something after the start they had enjoyed.
One of the glaring problems at United still is the fact that they do not really have a certain style going forward. It’s hard to put them down as a side that likes to build-up play from the back – or a team that destroys teams on the counter following a period absorbing pressure in a way Leicester City did in the victorious 2015/16 campaign, although they certainly have the tools to do that.
Granted, there is a flexibility to the Reds under Mourinho but there is also a thin line in football between flexibility and sheer uncertainty and at the moment that line is very much blurred at United. One week they look like they know what they are doing and the other week they (deservedly) lose to Huddersfield Town before half-time. This uncertainty in the side appears to be a collective reflection of the players themselves and a mere culmination of their individual inconsistencies. A case in point is Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Mkhitaryan began the campaign spectacularly well with two assists and followed it up with three more in the next two games including a goal – as United scored 10 before going into the first international break. Since then, the Armenian has been involved in just 3 goals in a total of 13 appearances for club and country in what has been a serious dip in form.
It’s not a coincidence that United managed to win every game that Mkhitaryan had either scored or assisted in and neither should it be, for a player of his skill-set and importance, which was oftentimes underappreciated and not adequately rewarded with a consistent run of starts until this season. But Manchester United are now hit with a real lack of quality in the middle and final third and it is easy to see why.
The Armenian is an incredible footballer who has managed to score or assist over 40 goals in Germany, which is no mean feat. But what separates him and a higher ceiling of attacking midfielders such as Kevin De Bruyne and Christian Eriksen is the inconsistencies leading to bad touches and worse decisions that seep into his game when things don’t go his way.
The difference lies in the abilities of De Bruyne and Eriksen influencing a game even when they are not directly contributing to the outcome through a goal or an assist, while the Armenian on the other hand, much like Romelu Lukaku he plays off, struggles to make an impact when he is not creating a goal or scoring one himself.
Can you remember a single game where Mkhitaryan put in a man-of-the-match performance without actually scoring or assisting a goal? Me neither.
United although expensively assembled, like all football sides – are still on the lookout for ‘a talisman‘, in crises. Paul Pogba may become that man one day – if not already. In Mkhitaryan however, United might already have one, only if he didn’t continue to shrink and hide under pressure and deliver a level of performance week-in week-out that sits right with his calibre. At the moment compared to his counterparts at Man City and Spurs, he is so near yet so far.