A 1-1 draw away from home in Europe is usually regarded as a good result and United will be firm favourites to beat a limited Anderlecht side at Old Trafford next week. In his post-match interview however, Jose Mourinho could barely disguise his anger at his team’s inability to close out a game they had the lead in and total control of. A couple of months ago he would have dismissed the fact that a 1-0 lead was not extended as a case of pure luck, but he has seen the same scenario unfold too many times to truly believe that fate is playing its part in his attackers’ inability to open defences up and finish the chances that come their way. Defensively United have become stubborn opponents, although the game in Brussels may not be the greatest advert for that, but their forward play remains disjointed, too slow and lacking in quality. Players are taking too many touches, too long to release the ball, the movement is often poor and final balls are imprecise or fluffed. The manager has, it would appear, seen enough:
“We have to kill matches. There was lots of space to play (tonight), lots of half chances that we don’t transform into chances because of poor control, bad decisions. Our defence was very solid, but one chance and we were punished. You have to play more seriously, you put together the performances of our attackers and we don’t get much juice. If I was one of my defenders I would be very disappointed with those who could have killed the game.”
There are sure to be changes in the summer, but the likely fall guys are not entirely apparent. Juan Mata has had probably his best season in a United shirt, whilst Henrikh Mkhitaryan has offered a consistent goal threat. Jesse Lingard has just signed a huge new contract and Marcus Rashford is a player who, regardless of performance, Mourinho seems to value hugely. Perhaps most at risk is Anthony Martial, a sublime talent struggling under the Portuguese, who has rarely allowed him a pass for a single poor game. Consistency is hard to build when chances to play are so infrequent. Regardless, Martial’s cameo in Brussels was poor. Aside from the Frenchman, however, Mourinho appears to value his attackers and yet it is they who are failing to produce, in whichever combination they are selected.
You’ll note, of course, that I have yet to mention Zlatan Ibrahimovic, prima facie United’s most important player this season. Without his 28 goals in 44 games his team would have sunk into oblivion, and yet this tally does not tell the full story. The Swede can undoubtedly produce a moment of magic out of nothing, as he did at the Stadium of Light last weekend, killing off Sunderland when United were struggling for ideas. However, he is a scorer of great goals, as opposed to a finisher and his profligacy has at times been costly. The enduring conundrum regarding his contribution is whether his goals counteract the way in which his game and frequent sloppiness lead to dysfunction in the way the forward line play. Ibrahimovic drops deep, leaving a void in and around the penalty area, does not press effectively, often slows attacks down and regularly surrenders possession too easily. At Sunderland a wretched overall performance was counteracted by his sublime goal and an assist for Marcus Rashford’s first Premier League goal since September, but in Belgium there was no positive contribution to mask a poor display. Some argue that his goals have kept United afloat this season, others that they only go some way to offsetting the lack of attacking fluency that they feel he causes.
The debate around Zlatan is pertinent because he is yet to commit to remaining at the club next season and the fan base appear split as to whether they want him to stay or depart for the beach in California. Those in favour of his departure argue that it will force United to properly rebuild their attack, but Mourinho mouthpiece Duncan Castles is insistent that the priority for the summer is to strengthen the defence and midfield whilst making a single purchase further forward. Suggestions of a deal for Antoine Griezmann, particularly if the club do not qualify for the Champions League, appear fanciful and the Frenchman is not a classic centre forward. He would, in this writer’s opinion, need to be one of at least a couple of attacking reinforcements, a scenario which appears unlikely given the necessity fit strengthening elsewhere.
There is no doubt that at times Zlatan Ibrahimovic can be a match winner and at others greatly hinder his team’s attacking endeavour, whilst a lack of quality and incisiveness throughout the attack is also contributing to a dearth of goals. However, Mourinho’s anger is unlikely to prompt introspection where perhaps it should. Eden Hazard recently commented on the lack of attacking drilling the Portuguese gave his players at Chelsea and this forward line has the look of one which is trying to play intuitively rather than in any discernible shape or pattern. Attacking is haphazard and spontaneous and whilst the hands-off approach is one that may work with world class forwards, intelligent and skilled enough to make the right improvised decisions on the pitch, it is clearly less productive with more modestly talented options. Defensively Mourinho has this team and it’s relatively inadequate defenders highly drilled, but the attack looks seriously under-cooked and lacking in inspiration and class. The fans like to blind themselves by quoting chances missed, but in truth United have not played with any fluency since defeating Watford at Old Trafford in early February. The Premier League game against Hull, two rounds of games before that relatively rare home victory against the Hornets, was the last time the side created copious chances and failed to win. The profligacy argument only explains so much.
The answers to United’s attacking woes are therefore not simple. Mourinho appears resigned to bumbling through until the summer, when he hopes he can address his team’s shortcomings, and perhaps better players will flourish in his laissez faire attack. But he already has attackers of considerable talent at his disposal, including Anthony Martial, whose confidence looks utterly shot. The manager cannot finish chances for his team (he was helpless as Paul Pogba hit a glorious chance at the keeper at Anderlecht), but he can get more out of those he has through coaching and better man-management. Phases of play between the half way line and the penalty area are as much of a problem as sticking the ball in the net. Mourinho has recently suggested that if young players in particular are unable to produce for him every week then he’ll find someone else who will, which does not bode well for the likes of Martial and Marcus Rashford, as much as the manager flatters the latter. Perhaps he should also be questioning Zlatan’s role in the current dysfunction. He needs to find answers if the club is to produce the title challenge that will be demanded of it and him next season. Some of the answers can be found in United’s chequebook, but perhaps partial solutions are already within Mourinho himself.