It’s hard to read too much into Manchester United’s defeat away at Arsenal last weekend. A heavily rotated side went down 2-0 to a team still chasing a top four spot. Above all else, Jose Mourinho definitely has more pressing issues in mind.
But it does highlight at least one thing about United, and something they’ll need to address in the summer, no matter what happens between now and the end of the season: their strength in depth.
With injuries to Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Ashley Young and Timothy Fosu-Mensah – not to mention the fact that both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are only just back from lay-offs of their own – it’s clear that more depth is needed.
Whilst this run of injuries is perhaps exceptional, the list does also show that the strength of the squad isn’t great. If United are depleted because they’ve lost the players named above, that doesn’t really bode well for next season, especially if the Red Devils are looking to challenge for titles at home and in Europe.
And yet there are positives: the squad might not be exactly where he wants it, but Jose Mourinho is clearly starting to get his ideas across. The unbeaten record might be gone after defeat at the Emirates, but those aren’t the records Mourinho cares too much about. Instead, his side are improving overall and could very well end the season with two trophies and Champions League qualification.
One of the most pleasing moments of the season, from a United point of view, was surely the victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford last month. Mourinho played his old club at their own game, combining perfect defensive organisation with a ruthless cutting edge on the break.
The downside, though, is that United aren’t necessarily capable of doing that every week. And one of the reasons is the depth in the defensive line, and the ability to shut games out – something Mourinho is famed for.
During his time at Chelsea, shutting out a 1-0 win was something of a speciality. This season at United, you only have to look at Swansea at home last weekend to see a game where United threw away a one-goal lead towards the end of the game.
One ploy in his last title-winning season in 2014/15 was to bring on the young French centre back Kurt Zouma. And as the former Saint-Etienne defender doesn’t seem to be in Antonio Conte’s best XI this season upon his return from injury, he is the sort of player Jose Mourinho should be looking to target – and is valued by Transfermarkt.com at £14.45m.
Before his injury, Zouma averaged 5.3 clearances per game last season. That’s a mammoth number, but it goes to show that he’s the kind of defender who gets in the way of attackers and relieves the pressure on his fellow defenders. In a phrase, that’s exactly the kind of player Mourinho looks to, especially in big games. And it’s not really something he has too much of alongside Eric Bailly, as Chris Smalling doesn’t look like the commanding defender Louis van Gaal relied on time after time last season (even if often referred to the England man as ‘Michael’), and Phil Jones hasn’t developed into the player many thought he’d become after his arrival from Blackburn.
Instead, Mourinho should look to a player like Zouma. Often criticised for not blooding young talent, the Frenchman is a player Mourinho has looked to in big games before, and he’s still young enough to stay at the heart of United’s defence for years.
More importantly, he is a very rare breed: a young player Jose Mourinho has, in the past, trusted in big games. In crunch moments, Zouma was the former Chelsea manager’s go-to defender whenever there was a need to shut up shop. If John Obi Mikel is the human final whistle, Zouma must be a human padlock. His bulk and athleticism adds a lot to a defending team, but Mourinho has used him in defensive midfield role as well as at centre back.
Given United’s lack of a natural defensive midfielder (Ander Herrera has done a wonderful scuttling, disrupting job this season, but he isn’t the man that United can turn to in order to close out a tight game) Zouma’s skillset seems ideal for Mourinho going forward. Manchester United fans may not be overly excited by that sort of signing – or at least, not for those physical, defensive reasons at any rate – but if success at all costs is the aim, then it’s a man like Zouma that Mourinho will want next season.