Reds discover shooting boots, now Ibra must justify place
Perhaps the most shocking data point from Manchester United’s last three Premier League home games is the more than 70 shots taken for just two goals scored. United 1-1 Stoke City, United 0-0 Burnley and United 1-1 Arsenal all carried a good deal of frustration. The six points lost in draws where United should have won might just be critical by May and could have taken José Mourinho’s side to just three points behind leaders Chelsea. It wasn’t so and for the most part the blames lies with the Reds’ inability to turn chances into goals. Not so on Thursday, with United vibrant in attack and efficient in scoring four against Feyenoord. The question is whether United can sustain the level of performance when the serious business of domestic football resumes this weekend?
This is no idle question. It is more than two months since Mourinho’s side last scored more than once in a Premier League home match, against a decidedly under-par Leicester City. In between there have been handsome victories: over Fenerbahce at Old Trafford, Swansea City in Wales, and Thursday night’s thrashing of the Dutch outfit. Yet, inconsistency persists. It is pattern that could spoil a season in which success, even silverware, is not yet beyond reach.
United’s performance against Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side was worthy of the four-goal margin of victory. Wayne Rooney enjoyed a fine evening, scoring a beautifully weighted chip in the process. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was outstanding on his return to the team. And Juan Mata was again superb cutting in from the right.
Up front, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goalscoring drought continues though. He has just one in the past nine games, but at least the Swede offered a good foil for the attacking trio behind. The 23 chances created on the night bore solid fruit, meaning that United now needs only a draw at Zorya Luhansk to secure passage to the knockout stages of the Europa League.
"Depay remains out in the cold, but each of Rooney, Mata, Mkhitaryan, Lingard, Martial and Rashford can make a solid case for starting in support of Ibrahimovic. This might be the clichéd ‘good problem to have,’ but Mourinho is yet to discover the blend of players or formation that extracts the most from a hugely talented pool of attacking players. "
“I’m happy, this was a performance and a result,”claimed the 53-year-old. “Performance without result is not good but gives you a future. A bad performance with a good result is a happy moment but it’s just a happy moment, not a happy future. This time they played very well again with goals.”
Mourinho was just as happy with Jesse Lingard’s stoppage-time goal, describing the winger’s strike as “amazing” and “magic” after neat interplay between six players opened up an opportunity for the winger to curl a left-footed shot home from 25 yards. Lingard is becoming a specialist in the spectacular.
For all the joy United’s performance on Thursday brought, and it was certainly fun for the 64,628 spectators, the Europa League is the club’s fourth-ranked priority, behind all domestic competitions, and certainly qualification for Europe’s premier competition next season. The Reds’ home fixture with West Ham United on Sunday is far more important, with victory essential if Mourinho’s side is not to slip further behind rivals in the race for the Premier League title and Champions League qualification.
The Hammers arrive in poor form, with Slaven Bilic’s outfit now just one point off the relegation zone. Progress has stalled and unrest in the stands at the revamped Olympic Stadium is seemingly spilling onto the pitch. No better time for Mourinho’s team to pick up three points and score a hatful of goals in the process.
That will require an uplift in United’s domestic attacking performances though. In the Premier League the team has scored just 17, which is some 13 goals behind Liverpool and less than Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. Even 16th placed Crystal Palace has scored as many as United.
The Reds’ challenge lies not necessarily in the creative arts though. This was certainly a problem under former boss Louis van Gaal, but this season United has taken almost 17 shots per game on average, which is more than all but Liverpool, City and Spurs. Yet, the club’s overall shot accuracy is just eighth best in the league, at least in some part because only Spurs and Liverpool have taken more shots from outside the area. Each has taken more shots than United overall too. Or to put that another way, Liverpool has taken over 20 more shots from inside the area this season, where the chances of scoring increase substantially.
Part of that statistic lies with Ibrahimovic, who has eight goals in 18 games since arriving in the summer. He has two in the past nine matches, both against Swansea, and three in the past 13. It’s not quite the level of performance expected from a player whom scored 49 for Paris Saint Germain last season. On the surface Mourinho isn’t bothered, but he must surely understand that United’s goalscoring must pick up domestically if a nine point gap to Chelsea is to be bridged.
“He’s a great player for the team,” said the coach after Ibrahimovic scored twice against Swansea. “Today he scored goals, he didn’t in the past few matches, but that doesn’t matter at all. One thing is a striker who doesn’t score goals and doesn’t do anything else. Another thing is a striker that doesn’t score goals but does everything else. He does everything else for the team.”
The Swede will certainly start against West Ham on Sunday, but his attacking partners are far from certain. While Memphis Depay remains out in the cold, each of Rooney, Mata, Mkhitaryan, Lingard, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford can make a solid case for starting against the Hammers.
Martial wasn’t involved against Feyenoord and has suffered a frustrating season, while Rashford’s performances from the left have lacked the spark of last season. Yet, both offer a dynamic attacking threat and the promise of goals that others do not. Lingard was bright in a cameo on Thursday, while Mkhitaryan excelled. The Armenian’s performance was such that his ostracism for much of the season now appears all the more bizarre. Meanwhile, Mata has been outstanding this season, while Rooney’s performance of late are much improved.
This might be the clichéd ‘good problem to have’ but Mourinho is yet to truly discover the blend of players or formation to extract the most from a hugely talented pool of attacking players. There is precious little time to fix the problem, or to experiment. The margin for error, in the Premier League at least, is now all but gone.
Hope remains though. Perhaps more than hope given the vibrancy of United’s attacking performance in the Europa League. Lingard’s goal demonstrated a slick attacking understanding that will surely pay greater dividends in the months to come. Rooney’s smart finish offers promise too, although the player has been at this point more than once over the past three seasons only to disappoint once again. if Mkhitaryan can find the confidence to perform every week, Mourinho will be able to call on another attacking player of very rare quality.
It is Ibrahimovic that must really start firing though, especially if the Swede is to remain the Reds’ principle attacking outlet. It is hard for any striker to justify a place in the team on the basis of ‘holistic’ performance alone. Entering the vital December period, United has little room for profligacy in front of goal.