Reds travel to Leicester with Champions League door ajar
It looked oh-so-promising for a couple of months, but Manchester United’s resurgence under José Mourinho has stalled. The Reds have taken just six points from 12 in the Premier League since the turn of the year, compared to a run of five consecutive victories to end 2016. United’s winning run was always going to end, but it is the performance dip and inability to capitalise on opponents dropping points that is causing most concern. Mourinho’s men are under intense pressure to buck this trend on Sunday at Leicester City.
Since drawing with Liverpool three weeks ago, United has looked a shadow of the side that rocketed back into top four contention. Failure to win against either Stoke or Hull City heralded the return of the frustratingly wasteful finishing which permeated the opening weeks of the season. More worrying still is the general loss of urgency in the team’s play. The Reds remain unbeaten in the league since October, but Mourinho’s team is running out of opportunities to move beyond sixth place.
"It looked oh-so-promising for a couple of months, but Manchester United’s resurgence under José Mourinho has stalled. The Reds have taken just six points from 12 in the Premier League since the turn of the year."
This weekend’s trip to the struggling champions presents an opportunity to get back on track. Leicester’s fairy tale has well and truly come to an end, and the Foxes’ main goal now is to avoid the spectre of relegation. Claudio Ranieri’s men are just two points above the drop zone, and face a battle to preserve the club’s top flight status less than 12 months after defying the odds to capture the Premier League title.
Ranieri’s side has conceded goals at an alarming rate, but it means little unless United can arrest the team’s profligacy in front of goal. It’s no surprise to note that Mourinho’s side is the lowest scoring team in the top six, netting 14 fewer than Manchester City in fifth, and just once more than Crystal Palace in 18th.
The drought is different to last season’s under Louis Van Gaal. The Dutchman was pilloried for United’s thoroughly uninspiring brand of football – one that did not lend itself to even creating chances, much less scoring goals. Under Mourinho, the style of play has generally improved, yet the same problem remains. The Reds cannot put teams to the sword. In many of the nine draws that have handicapped United’s season, the team has created opportunities to win the game. It is an alarming trend, and one that has left fans wondering what could have been achieved this season.
Mourinho will feel the pressure, but there was little the manager could do when Juan Mata shot straight at the goalkeeper inside the six yard box last week, or when Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford skewed the ball wide when clean through on goal. The manager can, however, try to restore the sharpness that has been lost from his side’s play in the past few weeks.
Confidence has drained away since January’s limp performance against Liverpool, and Mourinho must find a way to get his players believing once again. The Portuguese can take heart from United’s 4-1 demolition of Leicester back in September – a rare home performance in which the Reds’ dominance was reflected in the scoreline. The Foxes were blown away in a first-half whirlwind that offered a glimpse of the performance level that Mourinho’s team is capable.
The same intensity is required this weekend if Mourinho’s men are to re-emerge in the race for Champions League football. Not least because both Arsenal and Liverpool are rapidly unravelling.
The key to Ranieri’s success last season was fashioning a system that maximised the output of a side which had been lucky to remain in the Premier League in the previous season. The direct, counter-attacking style caught almost every team in the division off guard, with few able to find a way to nullify the Italian’s approach.
N’golo Kante’s move to Chelsea cannot be underestimated, as the Frenchman looks set to play a vital role in a championship winning side for the second successive year. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have not exerted the kind of influence that earned the duo international acclaim in 2016, and as such Leicester has reverted to type.
That is not to say Leicester cannot still present a significant hurdle for United to clear. The Foxes could implement the game plan that served them so well last year, as United will likely dominate possession and control the tempo of the match. This is where restoring United’s urgency is so vital, as the type of plodding, apathetic performance that has re-appeared recently would leave the Reds’ susceptible to Leicester’s smash and grab style. Mourinho will surely preach the value of intensity.
Phil Jones limped off against Hull on Wednesday, bringing to an end his longest run in the side for some time. Jones had recaptured some promising form, but players who have a reputation for being injury prone often struggle to shake off the tag. Eric Bailly may return to the starting line-up in Jones’ absence. The Ivorian has accrued very few minutes for United of late, but Mourinho may be tempted to pick him ahead of Chris Smalling, whose excellent form under Van Gaal has now deserted him. Bailly looked a fine signing in the early part of the campaign, and could re-establish himself alongside Marcos Rojo.
Leicester subs from: Zieler, Chilwell, King, Wauge, Okazaki, Mendy, Benalouane, Musa
United subs from: Romero, Darmian, Young, Shaw, Smalling, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger, Lingard, Rooney, Mata, Rashford
In midfield, Paul Pogba continues to take criticism over his inconsistent form, but will likely remain in the side. Pogba often makes the more difficult aspects of the game look routine, but lets himself down with some annoyingly basic errors. The Frenchman’s much discussed price tag means that he is scrutinised more heavily than many of his contemporaries, but if the 23-year-old is to fulfil his goal of becoming one of the world’s elite players then this is a burden he will have to bear. Is the weight of expectation is having an impact? Either way, United could do with a commanding performance from the midfielder on Sunday. Pogba has the ability to dominate games at any level, but he has to start showing it consistently as United’s season reaches a pivotal stage.
Elsewhere, Mourinho’s treatment of Anthony Martial is beginning to puzzle United fans. The French forward has drifted in and out of the side all season, and repeated public criticism from that manager is apparently beginning to frustrate the player. Martial was set an ‘audition’ in the FA Cup tie against Reading, and although Martial did not turn in a 10 out of 10 display, two assists point to a player as as influential as anyone on the pitch. Unsatisfied, Mourinho dropped Martial for the visit of Hull, and he ended the game as an unused substitute.
"Mourinho’s treatment of Anthony Martial is beginning to puzzle fans. The young forward is held in considerable esteem, and the manager’s policy towards last season’s top goal-scorer is now an undoubted cause for concern. "
The young forward is held in considerable esteem by supporters, and Mourinho’s policy towards last season’s top goal-scorer is now an undoubted cause for concern. The manager has seldom allowed Martial a consistent run in the side, while Marcus Rashford tends to impress more as an impact sub, especially in a wide role, meaning nobody has laid significant claim to the left wing berth.
Mourinho applied a similar, ultimately successful, policy with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but refrained from the public lashings that he has directed at Martial. The Portuguese coach is a provocateur, but he is now walking a fine line between motivation and alienation. Martial is a wonderful talent who must not be allowed to lose hope of succeeding at Old Trafford. The manager can right Wednesday’s wrong by restoring Martial the side at the King Power Stadium.
Beyond the Frenchman, Mourinho’s team needs a performance and a result. With both Arsenal and Liverpool suffering damaging defeats on Saturday, the door is once again ajar for United to muscle a way into the Champions League reckoning. In order to do so, the the team must stop being its own worst enemy.
Anthony Taylor (Referee)
S Bennett, P Kirkup (Assistants)
N Swarbrick (Fourth official)
Leicester 0-1 United