After another disappointing defeat, this time at the hands of Fenerbahce, Jose Mourinho has suggested his side is lacking balance at the back, and this is impacting negatively on both performances and results as his team continues to struggle.
While he did not criticise his makeshift back four for their individual showings, Mourinho is acutely aware that fielding three left-backs in the same defensive unit is far from ideal.
Speaking in his post-match press conference, Mourinho addressed his side’s defensive vulnerabilities, after they conceded early against both Chelsea and Fenerbahce this month. Is this becoming a worrying trait or excusable given the specific circumstances?
“Well, you’ve never seen a Jose Mourinho team play with two left-backs at central defence, and I cannot be critical of the boys, because they do what they can.
“They try their best; for Daley [Blind] it is even more difficult to play as a central defender on the right side. It’s completely uncomfortable for him; he cannot even be a good builder of the game, which is one of his good qualities. Marcos is trying hard and is fine, but it’s a very important starting point for the stability of the team.”
The point Mourinho raises about Blind’s position as the right centre-back is an important one. The major benefit to selecting a midfielder in defence is almost always their ability on the ball. Daley Blind has been excellent in possession this season, building attacks from the back and breaking the first lines of the opposition with the quality of his passing. It is a vital and underrated skill and with Blind restricted on the right side of the defence, he is unable to affect the game going forward and is exposed in a less comfortable position defensively too. A double blow.
Mourinho remained complimentary of his defenders’ recent performances at home, but he could not hide his concern at the lack of stability, and therefore consistency, that his enforced selections have led to.
“Even in matches where we didn’t concede goals with them, against Manchester City and Burnley, they were both home matches and we managed to play with a high percentage of the ball and with the defensive line almost at the halfway line. But it is hard to have a really strong team.”
The biggest issue for Mourinho right now is the injury to Eric Bailly. The Ivorian is out for a prolonged period with a knee injury, but should he return to fitness on schedule, will be out of the team shortly afterwards as he leaves for the Africa Cup of Nations in January. With Bailly unavailable for several weeks in the new year, and Mourinho already accepting of his side’s weaknesses without him, will United be tempted into the market in January in search of defensive reinforcements?
With his defence in tatters, Mourinho turned his attention to the ailing fortunes of his strikers. After a fast start, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s form has hit new lows, Wayne Rooney has lost his place in the team and Marcus Rashford is too often selecting in a wide position. Mourinho isn’t worried about the lack of goals though; he believes the philosophy of the team will lead to plenty of scoring opportunities in the coming weeks.
“We can also speak about the number of goals that we don’t score. Not the number of goals that we score, the ones that we don’t score. Sometimes teams don’t score goals because of their philosophy, because the team isn’t aggressive enough and doesn’t risk enough.
“That’s not our case, that’s not our case at all. It is also easy to see that some players in our attacking areas lack confidence; they’re not sharp and getting the chances that they can. Probably one of the only good things today was the fact that Rooney finally scored a goal. This also could be one of the key points in terms of his self-confidence.”
Problems in defence, problems in front of goal, problems with the FA; Mourinho has plenty to keep him awake at night. Should he guide his team to three points at Swansea however, most of those problems will fade into insignificance as United try to claw back the distance between themselves and the top of the table.