There has been a typical pattern since Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013, how do Manchester United make an effective title challenge? The culture and attitude at Man United has changed, players used to sing that ‘we’ve got our trophy back’ and it was rare to go two or three seasons without winning the league title or at least putting together an effective title challenge. This season Manchester City became record breakers hitting the 100 point barrier and also breaking the 100 goal barrier. Manchester United are now being consigned to history and no longer the record books, how do they close the ever-growing gap?
The first question is the future of Jose Mourinho? A trophyless season puts pressure on the best of managers but a knee-jerk reaction could put a significant dent in the rebuilding job. The style of play at Old Trafford has been sacrificed for Jose Mourinho’s effective and counter-attacking based football. Similarly to Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho is an advocate of tactical periodisation, which he learned during his time at Porto, focusing on distinct phases of play including in and out of possession and combining tactical, physical, mental and technical skills all into single training sessions. The difference is Guardiola focuses on his style of play and how he can beat an opponent, whereas Mourinho looks to nullify the opposition’s threats. However, whilst fans at Old Trafford reminisce of the Fergie years it would be incredibly surprising to see a manager sacked who has improved the club league position from 6th to 2nd.
Now that we have established that Manchester United are making progress under Jose Mourinho, how can they bridge the gap to Manchester City? If we look at the stats, whilst goals against are very similar with 28 for Manchester City and 29 for Manchester United, the big difference lies in goals scored with Manchester City plundering home 106 goals compared to Manchester United’s 68, not even Mohamed Salah’s haul of 32 would bridge that gap, but it would go a long way to helping out. Even though the most optimistic fan recognises that Salah might just be out of our reach, so who could help bridge that gap?
If we look at the obvious candidates, Gareth Bale and Antoine Griezmann could both fill a void as an inside forward on the right-hand side of Manchester United’s front three. This role has been filled unsuccessfully by Marcus Rashford and Alexis Sanchez (who both prefer playing from the left) and Juan Mata who is more effective as a playmaker through the middle. Gareth Bale is in the prime of his career at 28 and has 16 goals and 4 assists in 26 La Liga games. Antoine Griezmann is a year younger and has 19 goals and 9 assists in 31 La Liga games. The difference could be in the minimum fee release clause which stands at €100 million for Griezmann compared to Bale’s €500 million. Whilst it is unlikely Bale would cost that much, Griezmann’s clause would be significantly cheaper than a transfer fee for Bale and at a year younger could prove the attractive option.
The addition of a flamboyant inside forward could help transform Manchester United tactically, in particular if Jose Mourinho can push Paul Pogba behind Romelu Lukaku. Playing a three of Alexis Sanchez, Paul Pogba and Gareth Bale/Antoine Griezmann behind Romelu Lukaku would give Manchester United the creative spark to challenge Manchester City. It will help to bridge the gap in goals scored and in return bridge the gap in points.
In my opinion, two things are needed to bridge the gap to Manchester City. Firstly, Jose Mourinho needs to unlock the defensive shackles on Paul Pogba and allow his creativity to dictate the attacking force. Secondly, sign an inside forward to provide a further contribution to goals and assists which will be needed if Manchester United expect to make an effective title challenge next season.