Jose Mourinho’s best teams were known for their defensive solidity. But something that is often overlooked, their attacking play was not too shabby as well. The Portuguese finds himself in a bind at Manchester United for the moment. His team lack the solid base in the back for him to unleash his talented attackers with a free rein. The statistics and numbers of their attacking play look poor. The Old Trafford forward line have flattered to deceive. A statistical and tactical analysis of the season thus far will go on to show that they have not been as effective as they should have been.
On paper, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata look like dream options for any manager. But collectively they have not been able to form any coherent partnerships with each other.
Lukaku often finds himself isolated up front and the wide players have looked predictable and sometimes, bereft of ideas.
Where Are The Goals?
Manchester United have scored nine goals in the league this season. Eight more teams have scored more league goals at the moment. There’s no question Mourinho’s attacking players should be scoring more but they aren’t and that’s an issue.
Five of those nine goals came from open play, which is little more than half of the total. Paul Pogba scored from two penalties and the rest came from set-pieces. Finishing was a problem in the 3-0 defeat to Tottenham, but they have created very few chances in the other games from open play.
Lukaku is the number 9 of our team but he has taken 2.7 shots per game in the Premier League this season. He has done well to score four goals in five starts for the club. His equivalent at Manchester City, Sergio Aguero, has scored the same amount of league goals this season. But his shots per game is way ahead at 5.2.
At this point, Manchester United are not creating enough chances for the Belgian. He has done pretty well to get to four goals despite not getting the required service if we go by statistics.
Lack of Service or Output from the Wide Areas
Sanchez, Martial, Lingard and Rashford are frightening options to have out wide on paper. But sadly, as a collective, they have been poor, both in terms of statistic and tactics.
Mourinho promised earlier this year that we would see the best of Sanchez at Manchester United this season. We are still waiting. The Chilean still puts in the hard yards, but his output has been dreadful. He is yet to score a goal in the league this season and has just one assist to his name. For a forward player who was known for taking chances at Arsenal, his shots per game are at an abysmal 1.8.
He often lost the ball when he was with the Gunners but his offensive output made up for that annoying habit. The habit still persists at Old Trafford, but he is not doing enough to make us look past that. Even for an attacker, a passing percentage of 73% is poor. Compared to him Lingard is at 88% (in the Premier League) and Rashford is at 82%.
Lingard is also getting way two shots per game, more than both Sanchez and Lukaku this season in the Premier League.
Service from wide areas is also a major concern for Mourinho and Manchester United. All our wide players like to cut in, so the onus is on the full-backs to put in the crosses and our crossing statistics is not a pretty read.
Across six Premier League games, we have attempted only 20 cross, which is a little over three per game. Lukaku becomes deadlier when he gets better service from the wide areas, but we are not even attempting to provide that at the moment.
Take it Wide and Put in a Cross
Most of our build-up play comes from the left flank, but Sanchez’s poor numbers tell a story. Manchester United are also not spending enough time in the opposition third. A sustained period of pressure on the opposition back four has been few and far between.
Our inability or reluctance to put in a ball inside the box from wide areas has made us easy to defend against. Teams are sitting tight in the middle and it becomes increasingly difficult to break such team down if we don’t exploit the open wide areas. Shaw has been trying to provide the wide outlet on the left but Antonio Valencia offers nothing. His weird tap dance out wide and then the inevitable sideways or back pass is as predictable as Donald Trump lying during a speech.
Diogo Dalot provided a beautiful ball for Marouane Fellaini to score from against Derby County. Those kind of penetrating crosses are the need of the hour to stretch defences.
Despite the calibre of forwards we have, the attacking plan lacks an unpredictable streak. So is it time to ring in the changes?
Arise Martial FC
You would have noticed that I have not provided enough statistics or analysis of Martial until now. He has just not played enough minutes in the Premier League to suggest that he has been good or bad this season.
The Frenchman has been showing glimpses in his last couple of appearances that he could be interested again in playing football. He played a key role in the first goal against Derby County earlier in the week and looked threatening against Wolves.
Can he be as bad as Sanchez has been this season? That’s a tough benchmark to achieve for any attacker. It is time Mourinho benches the Chilean and gives Martial a run of games in the starting eleven. You never know, he could even win back the heart of another Frenchman in midfield if his compatriot plays a little more regularly.
More Fluidity in Attack Please
A front-three of Martial, Lukaku and Lingard/Rashford looks good on paper but it needs to be more fluid. One of the frustrating aspects of Manchester United’s forward play has been their reluctance to interchange positions. If we hark back to the days of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney, it was one of the features of those sides. They have the forwards to do the same, but they don’t try anymore.
Lukaku has shown for Belgium that he has the ability to play across the front three and not just as the focal point of attack. Mourinho must allow the front three to be more fluid in terms of positions. At this moment they are easy to defend against.
More service from the flanks and interchangeable front three will give opposition defenders more to think about. Manchester United have the attack to stretch defences, for the moment the tactics have hamstrung our forward line.
Alexis Sanchez, a Redemption Story?
Sanchez has not turned rubbish in six months. The quality is there and we have seen it in fleeting moments, such as the FA Cup semi-final last season. But the Chilean clearly hasn’t done enough in a Manchester United shirt. However, Mourinho must not give up on him just yet. While drafting Martial into the eleven will be a logical choice, the former Arsenal forward deserves a chance to make it at Old Trafford.
He played some of his most effective football at Arsenal as a fluid front man. Sanchez regularly dropped deep to get more involved. But Arsene Wenger got the best out of him when the Chilean was allowed to lead the attack.
As I said, Lukaku has the ability to play anywhere in the front three and off a striker as well. He has shown it with Belgium when he played with Hazard up front. It is worth giving a try if he can do the same with Sanchez at Manchester United.
The decision to stick Sanchez on to the left and not allow positional fluidity has not helped his cause. At Arsenal, he was allowed the freedom to drift around the front three. It made him a more unpredictable forward to play against. At Manchester United, his only trick is to cut inside on to his right foot against packed defences.
Mourinho is running out of time to get the best out of Sanchez. The Manchester United manager might want to tweak his tactics a bit if he has to see the Chilean in full flow at Old Trafford.
Anyone who has seen Manchester United play this season will agree that they have looked disjointed in attack. They pinned Wolves back for the last 20 minutes at Old Trafford on Saturday but never looked like scoring.
They have become too easy to defend against and the predictable nature of their football has become a major concern. The best Manchester United teams were the ones which looked like exploding while attacking. Even under Mourinho when they have looked good it is because of some quick movements up front. But we have not seen enough of that.
Personally, I don’t think that is down to personnel. We have the players in the squad to look more threatening in the final third. With the defence still looking shaky, it is time Mourinho let the horses run in the attack.
Will we see a few changes and tweaks against West Ham today? Up to you Jose!