The title race may have been all-but over, and yet defeat to Burnley at home would have been disastrous, perhaps from a PR standpoint more than anything else.
And yet, a comeback draw from two goals down against a team who would currently be in sixth place had they managed to hold onto victory at Old Trafford, hasn’t been seen as a positive at all. Indeed, Jose Mourinho’s post-game outburst about Manchester City’s spending power seems only to have plunged the club into an even deeper despair.
The rights and wrongs of Mourinho’s comments are, frankly, irrelevant for the moment. This weekend sees Southampton – themselves suffering a run of dismal performances – visit Old Trafford, and whatever poverty the United manger feels he is living in, this is a prime moment for a Manchester United side to reassert some dominance over as much of the Premier League as they can with a convincing backlash victory. In the final game of 2017, United have the chance to round off the year in second place and laying down a marker to the rest of the league that they’ll be back challenging at the very top in the new year.
In order to do that, though, Mourinho has some big questions to answer.
The biggest disappointment of the festive period for Manchester United hasn’t been Manchester City’s form. We are long past the point where the Red Devils can legitimately think about winning the Premier League title by clawing back their city rivals.
Instead, it’s the fact that Mourinho’s side have now gone three games without a win. And when you’re on such a run, the first question has to be why?
The answer, oddly for a Mourinho side, is the defence. In each of the last three games, United have conceded twice – including two last-gasp result-changers. Since his breakthrough in management, the Portuguese coach has always been a major proponent of a school of thought which holds that a clean sheet is more important than attacking flair, mostly on the basis that not conceding means you only need to score one to win a game.
United, though, have only kept one clean sheet in nine games – in a 1-0 victory over Bournemouth before Christmas. In that time, the Red Devils have rotated their defensive players extensively and it’s made little difference. But without Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly, and possibly still without Chris Smalling, too, Mourinho will have to keep trying to find the magic defensive formula without as many as three of his best defenders.
When Antonio Valencia broke down with a hamstring injury in United’s last victory, away to West Bromwich Albion, Mourinho called it a ‘December injury’, brought on by the workload of the season. That was even before the festive period started in earnest, however, and after playing on Boxing Day, United will play once again this weekend against Southampton before a New Year’s Day trip to Everton to kick off 2018.
That means rotation will be key, but both games will presumably see United have to break down defences which are set solid in order to frustrate the Red Devils, as Mauricio Pellegrino’s Saints will be keen to make sure they aren’t hit for five like they were on Boxing Day, and Sam Allardyce’s Everton are unsurprisingly flourishing in defence and deteriorating in attack.
Good rotation will be key for Mourinho, who will need to use his attacking resources wisely as they’ll be needed twice in three days. Playing both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku didn’t work against, whilst United’s goals in the last two games have, encouragingly, come from Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, who scored two apiece against Burnley and Leicester respectively.
United will need to make sure both of those form attacking players can maximise their impact over the next two games.
Rotation isn’t just a problem for the attack, however. This season, with injuries to Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini, a lot of work has fallen on United’s midfield. Indeed, the injury to Paul Pogba in the autumn may well seem like the single most costly event in the Red Devils’ entire season when we come to analyse it at the end of the year.
Without Pogba, United are a different side, unable to create for their attacking players as well as they can with him in the team, and they are also less effective on the counter.
As such, after his red card against Arsenal and subsequent three match ban, Pogba is back in the team again and has played 90 minutes four times in December – on top of the 74 he played in a frantic game at the Emirates at the start of the month, where he could well have played the full game if he weren’t red-carded.
Most worryingly for United, the Frenchman has already played three full games in six days over the Christmas period, and given Mourinho’s side have won none of them, they now need a boost as soon as possible.
That might well mean Pogba is asked to play another 90 minutes against Southampton this weekend out of necessity, and with only a matter of hours before a trip to Everton in the aftermath, Mourinho would be right to be concerned about losing his best player to injury once again – something which would really put another nail into the coffin of United’s season.
The trouble is balancing the need for a quick hit against Southampton and Everton with the need to rest players to fight on other fronts later in the season, with the Champions League and the FA Cup still to fight for.
Managing a team with the injuries that you accrue in a Premier League winter is a challenging business, but one Mourinho is well-versed at doing. But the intense pressure at United at the moment, coupled with the injury list they already have, could well mean it’s impossible for United to do everything this winter.
There have been 534 goals scored in the 199 Premier League matches played so far this season. That, dear friends, is an average of 2.68 per game. This is one of the reasons we have selected a bumper +1.5 goals coupon with excellent LeoVegas odds for this Saturday. Check out our reasoning—plus an absolute winner of an EFL outright win fourfold—in the latest Accy Show!