The new Premier League season is already 4 games in and the traditional, early season, tedious international break is bestowed upon us all. But for Jose Mourinho, the week’s grace from the craziness that is Manchester United Football Club is probably as welcome as two new centre-halves coming into the club. West Ham aside, there is probably not another club in the country that has had the negative media coverage as United have in the past 4 weeks, with 2 wins sandwiching 2 very poor defeats, it is fair to say this has been an interesting start to Mourinho’s third campaign at Old Trafford.
Quite rightly, question marks have been thrown in all directions on the red half of Manchester, to the manager, owners, Ed Woodward, agents and the players themselves. The articles almost write themselves but for now, the focus will stay firmly on the performances on the pitch.
Defence of the defence
While the home victory over Leicester was less than inspiring, the big talking points came from the back-to-back defeats to Brighton and Spurs, shipping 3 goals on each occasion, meaning United had already conceded a quarter of their 2017/18 season total in just 3 games. Following the ‘lack of transfers’ drum that Mourinho has been banging since pre-season, the two defeats has allowed the special one to stick up a huge ‘I told you so’ to one and all. The finger was quickly pointed towards the defence, with Victor Lindelof and more so Eric Bailly taking the brunt of the fallout, both being quickly evicted from the starting 11 for the Spurs game. Their replacements, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, then decided to follow suit. But as bad as the defending was at times in those 2 games, there were 2 other huge incidents that have gone seemingly unnoticed, which may have had an even bigger impact on the results and could easily have fired United to 4 wins from 4 rather than finding themselves mid-table and 6 points adrift of the top.
The best description of this United team at the moment is that they have a very similar mentality to a relegation battling club, whereby they seem to play with confidence until they fall behind in a game resulting in the wheels rapidly coming off. Against Brighton, United started off fairly well, comfortable in possession and controlling the game. The first half against Spurs was an even better performance, attacking with pace, directness and creating chances regularly. But the Glenn Murray and Harry Kane goals were the turning point in both games as United completely lost their way for the next 15 minutes and no surprise that they twice went on to concede 2 minutes later. Under Sir Alex, coming back from a goal or even 2 goals down would be almost inevitable, with this vulnerable Mourinho squad, it is anything but, making the importance of taking the lead as high as ever.
United had huge opportunities to do just that at the Amex and Old Trafford, both chances also falling to the man you would want them to in Romelu Lukaku. The United hitman could not have asked for better chances to open the scoring, pulling the chance against Brighton wide of Matt Ryan’s left-hand post from close range and then seemingly doing all the hard work of rounding Hugo Lloris only to then put his right-footed effort wide of the open goal. For a striker who lives for scoring goals, these were guilt edged chances that you would expect him to gobble up week-in-week-out. Instead, they cost his side the chance to really take control of the game and no doubt change the course of each. The chances of United going on to win both games would have been drastically improved had he taken them and huge pressure lifted off of a fallible defence. Although it’s understandable that the defence has taken some pelters for how it has performed, Lukaku’s glaring misses should have equally been lambasted.
Critical of not being clinical
Unfortunately for Lukaku, he does not currently possess the support on a goalscoring front that the other top sides have. Comparing United’s top scorers from last season to those making up the other top 4 positions, Liverpool and Spurs had 3 players getting into double figures, City had 4 and United had just the 1 and the top goalscorer from each scored more than Lukaku. On top of this, the reliance on the big Belgian being at his most clinical best is highlighted by the number of chances created and shots taken by each of the top 4.
United lacked behind on both accounts last season, averaging at least 2 chances less per game and 3 shots fewer per game than the other 3 sides. In circumstances like those against Brighton and more so Spurs, it is paramount that Lukaku takes the big chances that come his way. Already in just 4 games of this season, Lukaku has missed over a quarter of the total big chances he missed in the whole of last season.
The Spurs misses are a bigger worry than against Brighton as the expectancy will be that more chances will come his way or the team in those sort of games, but against the top sides, big chances are few and far between and often the difference between victory and defeat. So it proved that way that Monday night, magnified by Harry Kane scoring from his first real sight at goal to put Spurs ahead and transform the game in their favour.
Importance of Lukaku
Despite the 2 misses, there is certainly no risk of him losing his place in the United starting 11, although, this could be a factor in some of his displays so far this season, with maybe a subconscious feeling that he has no competition for his place.
However, to be fair to him, he is often one of the few players who looks like he is putting in a shift for the side, even when he is not having his best game and against Burnley, this was as evident as ever. Not only scoring the 2 goals, he also led the line brilliantly and far better than other options available to Mourinho. The way United set up and attack, Lukaku is the focal point for most, with his imposing size and pace crucial in holding up play and getting himself in the box where he is so dangerous. When United went down to 10 men, he arguably got better and controlled the play as far up the pitch as he could for the last 25 minutes, taking the pressure off the United defence.
The Belgian is central to everything that can be good on the pitch for United, with his goals impacting both ends, but if players such as Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba can feed off of him and get themselves towards double figures for the season too, it will take huge pressure off of Lukaku and potentially may make him even more dangerous.