Despite being a gargantuan 15 points behind likely champions Manchester City, José Mourinho’s team has been on an upward trajectory this season. The Reds are among the top scoring sides in the league, while also ranking near the top for total clean sheets. Mourinho’s men face an abundance of criticism and scrutiny, but it would be foolish to ignore the positives despite City’s lead. Yet, there are opportunities for improvement in each third of the pitch over the second half of the campaign.
Mourinho needs more end product from his attack
It seems hard-nosed to criticise United’s attacking unit considering that the team has scored relatively freely since the beginning of the season. Yet, in order to keep pace with City, more is needed from the attackers in the side, especially against top opposition.
Rashford has scored and created at a regular rate, with nine goals and five assists to date. Yet, deployed out wide, his game suffers from too much predictability. Despite not being a natural winger, Rashford is inclined to drive to the byline and cross, although he has delivered only 63 balls into the box this season, compared to league-leader in this category, Kevin De Bruyne, who has 138.
Rashford is capable of cutting in on his right foot and either exchanging passes with midfielders or attempting more shots at goal too. He has taken just 45 shots this season compared to Harry Kane’s 124 or Mo Salah’s 82. After all, Rashford has developed a wicked strike from distance and should use it more.
Martial is another player from whom United need a bit more. With nine goals and eight assists this season, the Frenchman is showing that he is every bit as good as any other wide player in the league, including the much-discussed Eden Hazard and Salah.
United need the former Monaco in this rich vein of form more often. And for him to increase his output, such as his take-on percentage and number of dribbles per game, which is at 51 per cent and 2.7. Too often Martial also fails to connect the final pass or takes one touch too many, but if he can score more goals such as theone against Everton, United will own one of the league’s top performers.
Meanwhile, the main man, Romelo Lukaku, appears to be going through a rough patch. During the early months of the season he was making a strong case for justifying his hefty fee. In January, he stands with 10 league goals to his name and a further five in the Champions League and FA Cup. However, only four of those goals have come in the last 12 games.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Rashford has scored and created at a regular rate, with nine goals and five assists to date. Yet, deployed out wide, his game suffers from too much predictability.[/blockquote]
Lukaku is a striker who primarily thrives off service; more a fox-in-the-box than he is given credit for. In a side devoid of true wingers, he is suffering. Moreover, when Pogba is not in the side, Lukaku’s runs in behind seem to go largely unnoticed. Can United solve the problem? The acquisition of a solid crosser would greatly improve the potency of United’s attack.
In terms of Lukaku’s holdup play, for which he faces a great deal of criticism, the striker has been steadily improving this season. He has cleaner feet than many give him credit for and if he can connect more one-two’s with Jesse Lingard, Martial, Rashford, and Pogba, more goals will likely come his way.
In fact, Lukaku’s goal against Derby County in the FA Cup displayed terrific forward play. He held up the ball from Pogba’s clearance, beat his man, and then played a one-two with Martial before coolly finishing between the ‘keeper’s legs.
The competition from Zlatan Ibrahimovic should encourage Lukaku to improve the weaker parts of his game over the next few months. When Zlatan is in the side, he tends to drop deep, requiring midfield runners to go beyond the opposition defence. Lingard and Rashford are perhaps the only players that consistently do this and the three of them are not always deployed together.
Lingard, of course, has been in fantastic form this season, and is justifying a more permanent role at 10. No player in the side has better off-the-ball movement and the player’s biggest weakness is that he must finish more of the easy chances that come his way, much like those he took against Burnley and Leicester City in December. However, he has been a driving force for the side this season and his 12 goals in all competitions have been nothing less than critical.
Reinforcements required in midfield
When deploying a two-man midfield, United first choice should always be Nemanja Matic and Pogba. Few would have predicted just how well the two have complemented each other at the season’s start. Matic has unburdened Pogba, and while De Bruyne across town has received the plaudits, Pogba’s contribution is no less. The Belgian has seven goals and 12 assists in 28 games, while the Frenchman has three goals and eight assists in 20 games, the difference being that the City player has enjoyed more games in a more attacking set-up.
Outside Matic and Pogba, United’s centre midfield looks bare. Ander Herrera has not yet found the form of last season, while Marouane Fellaini looks to be on the way out. Michael Carrick is coming to the end of his career and has spent much of the season injured, while Scott McTominay has played well, but needs time to develop.
Mourinho would benefit from acquiring reinforcements this January, with rumours surrounding Jorginho, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, or even Andreas Pereira’s return. It would allow Mourinho to shift to the midfield three that worked so well against Everton and Derby. It is that three that has stimulated some of the very best football from Pogba in a United shirt.
Moving further forward, Lingard has locked down the number 10 position for the time being. However, there is still the option to play either Juan Mata or Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian has been devoid of confidence after starting the season playing relatively well. Mata has performed admirably this season, although he only has three goals and four assists to his name so far. In any case, he much prefers the centre of the pitch. Mourinho plays him wide knowing that the Spaniard will drift inside and allow Antonio Valencia to get forward, but it is a one-dimensional strategy.
If United could find a genuine right winger to feed Lukaku it would add another dynamic to the attack and allow Mata to rotate with Lingard at 10. After all, Mata won Chelsea’s player of the season twice in the position but has rarely enjoyed much time in the role in Manchester.
The defence is working, but …
At centre-back, Mourinho is lucky to not be suffering more from Eric Bailly’s absence. The Ivorian is still a month or two away from rejoining the side, but the manager has made do by rotating Victor Lindelof, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, and Daley Blind. Some United fans are disappointed that Axel Tuanzebe has not had a chance to prove himself this season.
After a rocky start, Lindelof has settled into the side, best displayed by his 89 per cent pass accuracy. Other than Blind and Bailly, the Swede is the only centre-back capable of consistently penetrating opposition lines to find advanced midfielders in space. As Jones and Rojo find their way back to form, competition for the two or three positions in central defence will be fierce.
The most encouraging sign is that United have no need to upgrade in this position, which bodes well for future transfer markets where the club can focus on other positions. Possessing the world’s best goalkeeper in David De Gea is, of course, central to United’s cause. Not least because United have conceded more than 250 shots in the league, far more than any other top six side.
It is at left-back where Mourinho may be changing his transfer strategy. Former wonder boy Luke Shaw has been brought in from the cold in perhaps is his last chance to impress in a United shirt. He is playing like it he knows it at last. In the nine games that Shaw has enjoyed this season, the defender has more than occasionally demonstrated the form that brought him to United’s attention in the first place.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It is at left-back where Mourinho may be changing his transfer strategy. Former wonder boy Luke Shaw has been brought in from the cold.[/blockquote]
Despite Ashley Young’s much welcomed revival, Shaw remains the squad’s only proper left-back, and he can be a dynamic presence behind Martial. After all, Young’s fine form probably won’t last forever. The former Southampton player must improve his crossing though, especially given that there is no better crosser at United than Young. If the youngster can find some more accuracy Mourinho can stop dreaming about other options in the months ahead.
Data: Whoscored, Premier League