In an extraordinary rant where Jose Mourinho claimed that a significant number of players from Sevilla would directly play in his team – which could be translated to – make his starting 11 at Manchester United, the Portuguese highlighted one of the fundamental issues at Manchester United in the post-Ferguson era. The fact that we are still reeling away from Alex Ferguson and his title-winning 2012/13 squad tells a story of a lack of nous at United at the boardroom level that has allowed the club to stagnate despite the staggering wealth amassed in the same period.
For a side that could effortlessly generate a total revenue circa £500-million plus in a year, every year – backed by a seismic TV deal, matchday revenue and commercial tie-ups left right and centre, the idea that United still play with a back four largely composed of Chris Smalling – a limited defender whose prime period has more often flattered to deceive than not, Ashley Young – a winger turned full back who is only getting older and Antonio Valencia – another of those reliable yet over 30-year old footballers at United – with less potential to grow as a footballer. Now, these are all good, dependable footballers in their own right but for a side that is managed by Mourinho, going for silverware from the word go, gunning to win the Premier League for the first time in five, soon-to-be-six years, it is clearly not good enough.
That brings to the key issue at the club that has plagued and hindered its progress – when Sir Alex Ferguson, the all-seeing eye that watched over the operations on and off the pitch and David Gill, the Chief Executive who oversaw transfers at the club stepped down at the same time allowing Ed Woodward – the Commercial know-it-all and David Moyes – an unlucky individual simply in the wrong place at the wrong time joined hands to deliver Marouane Fellaini in the end of their first transfer window.
Last Tuesday, as Manchester United went crashing out against Sevilla, it was Steven N’Zonzi, not Marouane Fellaini that showed his quality in the middle of the park at Old Trafford – playing an integral role to his side’s momentous victory on the night. If anything, that summed up the malaise that has set in at the club since Ferguson’s departure which Mourinho, has so far done well in the transfer window in a bid to address issues further forward but he will need to phase out more deadwood in the side and replace them with younger and hungrier pair of legs to compete with their rivals who are all getting stronger every summer.
In the middle and final third, the improvement has been obvious – with the two best players being the two signings that Mourinho made in the Summer. Romelu Lukaku is a handful of goals short of hitting the 30-goal mark for the season which is a remarkable achievement and would mean a personal best yet for the Belgian in his first season at Manchester United – which has had its ups and downs.
In midfield, the 29-year old Serb has been comfortably outperforming his peers with his consistency on the pitch and a dependability that has allowed the likes of Lukaku a touch more freedom in the final third. At the back, however, the effect has not been as clear and tangible. With the injury to Eric Bailly – who is arguably United’s best centre-half, the Portuguese was expected to give his new signing from the Portuguese league that he is a big fan of – a good run of games in all competitions but it was not the case.
The Swedish centre-half who could also play at full-back, a nod to his ability on the ball, has made a grand total of 17 starts in all competitions in 2017/18. He has only started in 9 games in the league which is baffling when United do seem shaky when it comes to bringing the ball out from the back. David De Gea, for his outstanding reflexes that would put an actual cat to shame, has never been as phenomenal a distributor and often relies on centre-halves getting the ball out to midfield and up the field to the wide men.
With both Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo prone to mistakes under pressure from the first press and Bailly’s injury lay-off it would have been a handy solution for Mourinho to sort his defence out and turn his unit more on the offensive yet the manager never really took the option, instead often played a three-man back line with two wing-backs in a pragmatic setup with the extra midfielder being McTominay or Fellaini – who are not inventive going forward.
But with the season set to reach the climax – or anti-climax rather, it is time the Portuguese began moulding his side to adapt to various scenarios he would come to face next season and get the best of ‘his’ signings in the process starting with Victor Lindelof at the heart of his defence.