It has been a bad case of Groundhog Day for Manchester United for the past few weeks. Most weeks they would experience the same exact thing: outplay the opposition, create less than enough chances to win the game, and walk away only with a draw. And more often than not, it is due to them not being able to hold on to their leads and conceding an equaliser late on. In fact, in their last eight league games United have drawn six, arguably being the better side in all of them, and half of those draws, against Stoke City, Arsenal, and last Sunday against Everton, saw United leading 1-0 with less than 10 minutes remaining, only for the games to end 1-1.
A lot of the blame has been attributed by fans to Jose Mourinho’s repeated decision to have the team drop back and defend their slender lead instead of going all out to add to the lead. Although there is a hitch to that argument that I feel the need to address for a bit. If the team have only managed one goal, despite being on the front foot for most of the game, why would you expect them to open up even more and go for a second, risking blowing the lead on the counter?
The real reason behind United’s struggle to retain leads isn’t necessarily Mourinho’s tactical decision, it’s the personnel that he has to rely on. Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo have both put in solid performances since they’ve been entrusted with the centre back positions, although Rojo shouldn’t be too proud of his performance at the weekend, and they’ve done well enough to not be dropped. But neither of them have the leadership mentality needed to inspire their teammates to hang on for dear life to their lead. And that’s where their problem lies.
Throughout the years United have always had that leadership figure at the back, that player who’s constantly instructing his teammates and is capable of getting his teammates to rally behind the defensive cause. United had Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, both of whom were not afraid to speak their minds on the pitch. Both were capable of instilling confidence and security to their teammates through both their ability and their communication.
Eric Bailly and Daley Blind’s combination at the start of the season had a similar effect. They compliment each other so well that they made each other more comfortable and confident because of their understanding of one another. Even with a much smaller scale of the Vidic-Ferdinand partnership, the effect of Bailly’s absence clearly hurts his partner, leading to Blind now sidelined to the bench.
Bailly’s return would definitely help, for the last couple of weeks before his departure for the African Cup of Nations, but just Bailly himself isn’t enough. His and Blind’s partnership only works because of their playing styles. Both Vidic and Ferdinand, while they’re clearly best with each other, they have the leadership qualities to elevate the teammates around them. Neither Bailly nor Blind, or in fact any of United’s other options in defence, have the confidence to boss around their teammates, as well as the ability to ensure their teammates’ trust to go with their words.
United have two players in the reserves who have displayed these qualities in Axel Tuanzebe and Regan Poole, but this might not be the point to throw a young player in the deep end. Jones was tipped to be a future United captain by Sir Alex Ferguson, but he still has some way to go to reach that point, and while Chris Smalling has captained the team multiple times, that had more to do with Louis van Gaal trusting him than his teammates. Bailly is showing signs of growing into a becoming a leader, but he isn’t quite there yet, and it would be unfair, not to mention detrimental, to expect him to mature already.
So the only option is to look into the transfer market. If links to Southampton captain Jose Fonte is proven to be true, it would prove that Mourinho is looking for someone to take charge in defence. Having someone who could inspire and command the defence to hold on to leads is crucial for Mourinho’s style of play. Mourinho isn’t shy of having older defences in his teams, with Walter Samuel and Lucio at Inter Milan, and his signing of Ricardo Carvalho at Real Madrid, and if he may need one to boost the confidence of his United defence