Manchester United missed out on the chance to close the gap on the top four after drawing 0-0 at home to Hull City.
In a performance that was well below-par, United squandered several excellent chances and could not break down a stubborn Tigers defence. With four of the five teams above them dropping points this week, tonight represented a huge opportunity to get right back in the mix at the top of the table. Opportunity lost.
After an impressive performance in the FA Cup at the weekend, Anthony Martial was back on the bench for this Premier League fixture, while Luke Shaw missed out entirely. Back came Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Carrick and Valencia, while Marcus Rashford started on the left-hand side. As we approach the business end of the Premier League season, Mourinho seemed to revert to arguably his strongest starting XI.
Manchester United were absolutely terrible in the first half. They lacked creativity, pace, intensity, any of the key attributes needed to take the initiative in a football match at this level. Hull City came to Old Trafford looking for a point and structured the shape of their team accordingly. In a 4-1-4-1 shape, with no space in between the lines, Hull sought to make it difficult for United by flooding the midfield, playing narrow and denying any opportunities to create chances centrally. United played into their hands, both with the team selection and the strategy out on the pitch. There was a lack of balance in wide positions. Rashford was willing to play wide but less able in those positions, while Daley Blind doesn’t have the pace to offer dynamic, penetrative running down the flanks, while on the other side Mkhitaryan kept moving in off the touchline to link up with Ibrahimovic, leaving United too dependent on Antonio Valencia to maintain attacking width on the right-hand side. Tactically, it was a mess.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s first half performance illustrated the issue United had throughout the team. He wasn’t the only player culpable, but certainly his role didn’t help matters. Starting on the right-hand side, the Armenian has the licence to move into central positions to link up with Ibrahimovic and present a goal threat, but he just moved too early, too often. By spending so much time in the central areas, his movement towards the ball didn’t drag Hull players out of position and didn’t create any space for others to move into.
As a result, when he did get on the ball in central positions, he was unable to create anything. The majority of his successful passes were sideways or backwards and he offered absolutely nothing in the final third. Against a packed defence that was comfortable with the ball being played in front of them, Mkhitaryan needed to offer more penetration, either by running in behind Hull himself or by delaying his movements towards the ball in order to disturb the organised masses in orange and black stripes.
Despite the strength of his selection, Jose Mourinho made several poor decisions in choosing his team tonight, most notably the absence of Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial, despite the necessity for pace against Hull’s rigid defensive structure. He made another poor decision at half-time, when he took off Michael Carrick and replaced him with Wayne Rooney.
The decision to remove Carrick could have gone either way. On one hand, the decision to remove a side’s deep-lying playmaker when faced with a low block defence is risky. It is tempting to put another forward on the pitch but the attacking side still needs someone who can pick the lock. On the other hand, Carrick completed 94% of his passes in the final third but was unable to adequately affect United’s threat in the attacking third. Mourinho wanted more in those advanced areas. His mistake? Picking Rooney, rather than Mata.
Rooney came on and it changed the shape United’s midfield. Pogba and Herrera formed a central pairing and Rooney played as a #10. It did not work. In theory, Rooney would be able to get on the ball and start dictating the tempo of the game just as Carrick was in the first half, only further up the pitch. Mkhitaryan and Rashford would be free to run in behind and stretch Hull, Ibrahimovic could remain an advanced focal point in attack, rather than dropping team to collect the ball, and Hull would be pinned back as United started to apply meaningful pressure. In practice, this did not happen.
Rooney is not a subtle technician like Mata or Mkhitaryan. He didn’t get on the ball nearly enough to start controlling the tempo of the game and he had very little impact in the 45 minutes he was on the pitch. He completed just 81% of his passes, but most troublingly, the passes he did complete were inconsequential and did not contribute to any creative passage of play. With Juan Mata available as an alternative substitute, or with the option to introduce Anthony Martial or Jesse Lingard and move Mkhitaryan into the #10 position, the decision to bring Wayne Rooney on at half-time was baffling. It certainly contributed to the lacklustre way United played immediately after the restart.
Credit to Mourinho, it did not take him long to recognise United were struggling in the second half and he introduced Mata after 62 minutes. He was the catalyst for United’s mini-revival and they started to play with some intensity once he was brought on. He started to get on the ball and make things happen. He restored calm to proceedings and allowed United to create sustained pressure on the Hull City goal as they initiated wave after wave of attack. Had it not been for a wonder save from Jakupovic, Mata would have opened the scoring for United too. In a devastatingly poor night for Manchester United, Juan Mata maintained some credibility with his level of performance.
All that aside, the bottom line is Manchester United drew at home. Again. As Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal all dropped points, Manchester United failed to capitalise. Again. This battle for the top four is being made more difficult by United’s inability to seize the big moments. Poor finishing earlier in the season cost them a shot at the title, will poor form at the start of the new year cost them a shot at the top four?