It has all been very quiet on the football front, a sense of calm before the impending storm, that Manchester United desperately needed after a whirlwind of the last few weeks on and off the pitch.
After intense speculation about Mourinho’s precarious position as manager of Manchester United, with the Portuguese reported to have ‘lost’ the dressing room as if a manager could ever ‘win’ one, it was rather fitting that the Red Devils won the game last Saturday, in the manner they did; going 2-0 down very early in the game plunging the club to a Premier League low – to then complete a thrilling comeback in the last 25 minutes – on a day when the fans, players and the manager all seemed to be on the same page for the first time in a long while.
The contrast between the two halves against Newcastle United could not have been any starker. What followed a tepid, uninspiring football that was filled with fear rather than imagination and flair, was everything the first half was not. As the crowd roared the stadium to life when the players returned to the pitch for the second half, Jose Mourinho made his substitutions and the team duly responded.
Bringing Juan Mata for Eric Bailly in the first half, Fellaini for McTominay – two players who are very good at recycling possession by keeping the football simple, ensured that United grabbed hold of the ball at a point when they were drifting off dangerously.
It was no coincidence that United ended that half with 72% possession even though they had no goals to show for it. The introduction of Alexis Sanchez brought urgency to the team – and when the shackles were off – the front men put together an entertaining match-winning display scoring 3 well-worked goals with the same amount of possession that makes one wonder: why can Manchester United not do this every other week at Old Trafford?
United, for all the possession they have – and they are averaging the 4th highest average possession in the league – are uncharacteristically hesitant in the final third.
Whether this is instructed by the manager or just a natural symptom of a lack of confidence in front of goal remains a debate but United do not take enough shots on goal. For a side that dominates possession as they do – even when they are off-color and they have been for the better part of the campaign, Mourinho’s men have averaged just 14 shots on goal per game and they have only played ‘one top six side’ so far in the first eight games. It fades all the more in comparison with the league’s three best teams in Manchester City who average an impressive 21 and Chelsea who have managed 17 attempts per game so far.
And they need not look further than their first team squad to improve their chances in front of goal; by being more proactive in the final third. Alexis Sanchez, who has had a rough start – incidentally scored the winner in a high stakes game and it could not have come at a better time for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. The Chilean is a bona fide world-class footballer and is a ready-made match winner being underused in the side – shunted out wide and feeding on scraps.
In 2016/17, his best season in England with Arsenal, Alexis Sanchez scored and assisted over 30 goals and was the centerpiece of an expansive attacking side. While Mourinho’s pragmatism may at times prove to be containing one of the most devastatingly incisive and exciting players in the Premier League, Sanchez’s all-action style and relentless work ethic should ultimately suit Mourino’s idea of hard-working forwards not shy to do the dirty work if needs be.
The Portuguese’s preferred system with the center-forward as the focal point will also play right into Sanchez’s strengths – as someone comfortable with playing in congested and close spaces unlike the alternatives in Martial or Rashford or even Paul Pogba. There is potential for Sanchez to be the most ideal number 10 for Mourinho, playing off of Lukaku and as a pair when Manchester United are comfortable in possession, to force the issue against teams that sit back at Old Trafford.
Given the options, United have in wide areas and even up front – there is quite a power vacuum in the ‘hole’ which is cause for concern for Mourinho as they struggle to find goals in games. Having scored 3 against Newcastle United – with Alexis Sanchez getting on the score sheet for the winning goal – from inside the box, where he needs to be playing for 90 minutes – may be the wake-up call that the manager needed.