All in all, it has been an odd first half of the season for Manchester United.
After winning both the EFL Cup and the Europa League in 2016-17, securing Champions League qualification in the process, and after tying down the services of forward Romelu Lukaku and midfielder Nemanja Matic during the summer, expectations were high ahead of the new season.
Jose Mourinho’s side started the campaign like a runaway train, winning six of their opening seven fixtures and scoring 21 goals in the process to set the pace with Manchester City at the top.
Yet things have gradually began to unravel since their 0-0 draw at Anfield in mid-October, losing twice to Huddersfield Town and Chelsea before coming unstuck against their bitter city rivals Manchester City to leave clear daylight between themselves and Pep Guardiola’s side in the table.
The recent festive period left very little to cheer about either, with three consecutive draws against Leicester City, Burnley and Southampton allowing Chelsea, Liverpool and the chasing pack to gradually draw closer, and those pre-season hopes of a title challenge are merely a distant memory.
Yet, whilst the Premier League title may be slipping out of United’s reach, there is still plenty of silverware up for grabs in the form of the FA Cup and Champions League and January could be an important time at Old Trafford.
The red half of Manchester has quite the track record when it comes to mid-season additions, with the likes of Andy Cole, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Juan Mata all making the switch in the transfer window in years gone by, and a signing of a similar ilk could provide a much-needed boost.
There certainly won’t be wholesale changes for Mourinho, that’s for sure.
The spine of the Manchester United side is taking place nicely through David de Gea, Eric Bailly, Matic, Paul Pogba and Lukaku, and slowly but surely he’s starting to craft a well-balanced team.
Nonetheless, there is a spark missing in the wide areas, and despite having Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard on the books they’re lacking a world-class winger that can consistently provide Lukaku with service inside the penalty area.
It was hoped that Mkhitaryan’s arrival from Borussia Dortmund in 2016 would add this desired creativity and inventiveness in front of goal but his time at Old Trafford hasn’t materialised as hoped, and the glimpses of his peak form from his Bundesliga days have been few and far between.
It is a frustrating case for Mourinho as, at the start of the season, there were few Premier League players as in-form as Mkhitaryan, scoring once and assisting five times in the opening six matches.
His downfall has been as dramatic as it has been publicised, and after cutting words from the Manchester United boss in recent months his performances on the pitch have been utterly abject.
With BBC Sport reporting last month that former side Dortmund are considering buying him back, it is a likely story that this move will be sanctioned to free up funds for a proven replacement winger.
In the cases of both Martial and Rashford, neither are natural wingers, and it’s shown at times.
Both are more accustomed – and more comfortable – playing in a striking role alongside Lukaku, a role which Martial has particularly impressed in of late, whilst Lingard has come out of almost nowhere over the Christmas period to stake his claim as an attacking midfielder behind the strikers.
United’s Premier League rivals have shown the importance of having an out-and-out winger in the ranks – just look at Mohamed Salah at Liverpool or Leroy Sane at Manchester City – and boss Mourinho knows that too, hence why he chased after Inter Milan wide-man Ivan Perisic in summer.
The Croatian international was outlined as one of four primary targets for United over the summer window yet he ended up being the one that got away, signing a five-year extension at the San Siro to end hopes of a move to the Premier League.
As such, Mourinho has had a few months to think of an alternative and Sky Sports have been reporting over the past week that Paris Saint-Germain’s Lucas Moura is now on his January wish list.
The 25-year-old has been shunned in France since the marquee arrivals of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, and it seems that he’s in desperate need of a move away to keep his career from stalling.
Another potential option could come in the form of Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez, who looks destined to finally get his move away at some point in 2018. Unlike the potential risk in buying Lucas, the Algerian is a man that knows the Premier League inside and out and has impressed.
Everyone knows that Mahrez is a player that loves nothing more than to run at people and drive at defences, and his ability to hug the touchline and cross the ball would be a huge positive for Lukaku.
A more outside bet comes in the form of young Bayer Leverkusen winger Leon Bailey, who, in a recent interview with German outlet Bild, revealed he has his sights set on a move to the Premier League one day – although a move for him would be a gamble for half-way through a season with matches coming thick and fast.
With all things considered, it seems like Lucas is the most probable option for now, though.
Whilst most of the talk will be about who may potentially come in at Old Trafford, this season has shown that there is a lot of deadwood in the squad that should be let go over the transfer window.
Players like Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian are ones that have struggled to ever get a foothold under Mourinho – or under Louis van Gaal – and their days at the club are now arguably numbered.
Should they leave then it is not out of the question that Timothy Fosu-Mensah could be re-called early from his loan spell at Crystal Palace to act as defensive cover – which based on United’s defensive luck this season will be needed – as he will be well-equipped after receiving regular first-team football at Selhurst Park under Roy Hodgson.
In addition, the current situations of both Mkhitaryan and Marouane Fellaini need to be sorted out, with Fellaini’s contract negotiations dragging on.
Allowing these four players to leave would free up those necessary funds to invest into an attacking wide-man, and if the summer is anything to go by then Mourinho won’t stop working until it is a done deal.
Jose Mourinho should build Manchester United around Marcus Rashford
Marcus Rashford returned with a bang against local rivals Liverpool on Saturday.
In his first Premier League start since Boxing Day, Marcus Rashford inspired Manchester United to victory over fierce rivals Liverpool. The 20-year-old’s first-half brace was the perfect way to mark his return to the starting XI, which had been confirmed following an injury to Paul Pogba.
Rashford has been a peripheral figure since Alexis Sanchez joined the club in the January transfer window. But, in arguably the biggest fixture on the Premier League calendar, the England international grabbed with both hands a rare opportunity to impress as United moved five points clear of Liverpool.
There was no evidence that Rashford’s prolonged spell out of favour had affected his self-confidence. His first goal was bursting with skill and composure. After latching on to a long ball from Lukaku, Rashford bamboozled Trent Alexander-Arnold before firing past Loris Karius.
Although his second found the net with the aid of a deflection, once again it was a testament to his sharpness. Despite his limited game time, that’s now 12 goals in all competitions this season for the World Cup hopeful.
Rashford’s stunning contribution will certainly give Jose Mourinho food for thought. The Portuguese has regularly picked Pogba, Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard ahead of Rashford of late, in the attacking trio behind Romelu Lukaku.
While Martial and Lingard have justified their selections, the same cannot be said of Pogba, who at times has looked uninterested. Sanchez too has yet to exhibit his best form in a United shirt since joining from Arsenal.
History has taught us that Mourinho rarely excludes his high-profile players, regardless of form. Had Pogba not been sidelined through injury, it is entirely likely Rashford would once again have been forced to watch on from the bench. Consequently, what transpired against Liverpool might have been a mere fantasy.
United have a proud tradition of producing homegrown players and not relying on foreign imports. Look at the treble-winning side of 1999, whose success was founded upon a British core.
Admittedly, the landscape has changed dramatically in the past two decades. The riches of the Premier League mean a club of United’s stature is able to cherry-pick the world’s best players. But just because they can, doesn’t mean they should. The club’s identity is sacred and, in recent times, United have been in danger of losing theirs.
The fact that Rashford was not signed for £75 million should not preclude him from being United’s centrepiece. As he reminded everyone in his performance against Liverpool, he has all the talent required to be a fixture at the club for years to come.
However, he needs to be playing regular football. A few minutes here and there will not accelerate his development. On the contrary, it could risk one of this country’s most promising starlets becoming an unfulfilled talent.
Rashford offers United something different from his team-mates. He gets supporters off their seats and electrifies the atmosphere thanks to his blistering pace and trickery, which in many ways is a throwback to the Sir Alex Ferguson era at Old Trafford.
These are qualities not usually associated with Mourinho, who throughout his time in management has always demanded his players to be tactically aware. Rashford is a wildcard, the ace in the pack that can conjure something out of nothing.
Forget Pogba and Sanchez, If Mourinho gives Rashford an extended run in the team, he and United will flourish.
Are Manchester United finding form at the perfect time?
Jose Mourinho out-smarted Jurgen Klopp on Saturday to strengthen Manchester United’s grasp on 2nd.
Manchester United have been criticised for their style of play this season, while some have suggested they are a team of individuals. However, they delivered a very good performance to beat rivals Liverpool to build up a five-point lead in second place.
Jose Mourinho will be delighted with the effort and cutting edge of his team, as he got the better of Jurgen Klopp in a huge game to strengthen his team’s position in the top four.
Paul Pogba missed out through injury, which would have been a disappointment before a ball was kicked. However, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic dominated the midfield areas with 13 ball recoveries in the ninety minutes. Ahead of them, Juan Mata added creativity and an attacking threat, especially in the first-half.
The Spaniard came close to scoring before the break with an overhead kick effort and his distribution was nearly faultless, as he finished the match with a 90% pass success rate.
The 29-year-old has had problems with Mourinho in the past, but he has emerged as a great squad option, especially in big matches. In addition to his nice touches on the ball, he made three ball recoveries. This underlines how he has bought into the style of his manager.
Marcus Rashford was another player to come into the team and he showed why he was selected as he scored twice to put Manchester United into a commanding first-half lead. His two goals were similar as they both came from Romelu Lukaku knock-ons. Mourinho knew Liverpool could be targeted with a direct approach and it worked.
The first showed great movement from Rashford as he gambled on his team-mate winning the ball and that gave him the march on the Liverpool defenders. He then coolly dropped a shoulder and cut inside before firing past Loris Karius. It showed impressive composure and skill in the final third. The England international has sometimes struggled with his final ball, but he was back to his best on Saturday.
He then added a second that once again showed his excellent finishing ability. Another long ball caused chaos, but it didn’t go directly to Rashford this time. When it did drop at his feet on the edge of the area, he delivered a perfectly measured shot to make it 2-0. It is now up to the 20-year-old to push on over the coming weeks to become a regular starter for club and country.
Jose Mourinho flourishes when he is defending a lead. He prefers to control matches without possession and that was the case on Saturday as his team had only 31.9% of possession. Liverpool had 14 attempts to Manchester United’s five, but the result was never in doubt.
That is highlighted by the expected goals. Michael Caley’s model valued the home side’s chances created at exactly 1.0, while it valued Liverpool’s opportunities at 0.8.
To put this into context, Manchester United had less possession and had fewer attempts, but they created the better chances and kept an in-form Liverpool attack relatively quiet.
The finish was made nervy by an unfortunate own goal from Eric Bailly. The defender couldn’t repeat what he managed even if he tried and it is difficult to prepare for such a bad piece of luck. Luckily for Mourinho, his side had a two-goal lead and the own goal didn’t push them.
The majority of Manchester United players can be pleased with their performances, but Ashley Young was perhaps the standout player. The 32-year-old made 10 ball recoveries and made five clearances to help the defensive effort.
Mohamed Salah was rarely in the game and the England international deserves huge credit for his role in that. He was disciplined and rarely ventured forwards. If he can continue to perform to that level, he would emerge as a great World Cup option for Gareth Southgate.
The past week for Manchester United has been a positive one and it should provide them with momentum to finish the season strongly. They showed great spirit to fight back from 2-0 down at Selhurst Park to get three points and they displayed excellent game-management to dispatch of one of their rivals.
They are now in a good position to finish second and that would be an achievement of sorts given the consistency of Manchester City. In addition to that, they can target Champions League success.
They aren’t one of the frontrunners for the competition, but they are good at managing games and have beaten now Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham at Old Trafford. If they can improve away from home, they could reach their peak at the perfect time.
Jose Mourinho has a record of doing that and this result should encourage supporters that this season could follow a similar pattern.
Crystal Palace 2-3 Manchester United: Three talking points from Selhurst Park
The Red Devils mounted an incredible comeback at Selhurst Park.
Nemanja Matic scored a dramatic stoppage-time winner as Manchester United overturned a two-goal deficit to inflict more pain on struggling Crystal Palace. Matic fired home from 25 yards to complete a memorable comeback from United, whose victory helped them regain second spot in the Premier League. Palace, meanwhile, remain in the relegation zone after slipping to their third successive defeat.
Selhurst Park was rocking when Andros Townsend put the hosts ahead via a huge deflection, before Patrick van Aanholt doubled their lead shortly after the break. However, Chris Smalling gave United hope 10 minutes later and the visitors then restored parity through Romelu Lukaku. With time ebbing away the draw looked inevitable, only for Matic to break Palace’s hearts with his first goal for the club. Here are three talking points…
Palace’s survival hopes suffer a hammer blow
A week earlier, the Eagles thought they had earned a vital point against Spurs in their battle to avoid the drop. That was until Harry Kane popped up to snatch victory with practically the last touch of the game. A sense of deja-vu was palpable when, after another encouraging performance against one of the top-flight’s heavyweights, Matic ensured Palace went home empty-handed. It was a monumental body blow.
Roy Hodgson’s side had belied their lowly league position and taken the attack to United, deservedly assuming complete control. Had the score remained at 2-0, Palace would have been as high as 13th in the table. But United’s comeback, which left Hodgon and his players visibly deflated, means they are 18th, one point adrift of safety with an inferior goal difference. Although the performance was a positive one, the result leaves the South London club deep in the mire.
Mourinho buoyed as United show resilience
For all the talk about how this has been a disappointing campaign for United, they leapfrogged Liverpool into second place as a result of this stunning victory. Jose Mourinho’s men exhibited substantial amounts of steel in doing so. They faced a real test of character, having fallen behind against a team fighting for their lives. It looked like a mountainous task, but United fought their way back into the game before snatching all three points at the death.
This was the first time since 2013 that the Red Devils had clawed back a two-goal deficit to win a Premier League match. Of all their victories this season, perhaps this one will please Mourinho the most. Any divisions are quickly exposed when teams find themselves in trouble. But the way United stuck to their task was a big statement at a key stage of the season. It should give Mourinho belief that his side can see off the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in the battle to finish runners-up.
Hodgson desperate for Wilfried Zaha’s return
Hodgson has previously tried to dismiss its significance, but Palace’s inability to win without Wilfried Zaha cannot be passed off as an anomaly. The Eagles have lost every single one of the nine Premier League games in which the 25-year-old has not featured this season, scoring only one goal in the process. For a while it looked as though that alarming record would be consigned to the history books, until United mounted an inspired comeback.
Zaha is clearly a talented individual whose absence would affect any team’s potency, but Palace’s over-reliance on him must be very concerning. The Ivory Coast international is currently sidelined through a knee injury and although he is back in light training, Hodgson has put no timeframe on his return to the fold. It’s no exaggeration to argue the Eagles’ survival aspirations depend on him.
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