Manchester United’s Europa League campaign started with an abject 1-0 defeat at the hands of Feyenoord. Feyenoord’s unanswered strike from Tonny Vilhena confounded United to a defeat to open a much dreaded Europa League campaign. United showed in the opening three Premier League games how good a side they are, but in the previous two, losing to a slightly better Manchester City side (on the day) and now to Dutch giants Feyenoord, that changes need to be made if United is going to be a great side and not merely a good one.
United has never settled for the standard. Always striving for the best, they have written the headlines and story books for countless years in English football. However, now, there are many problems that need to be fixed if this United side will contend with Europe’s top sides.
Firstly, it is time to stop pretending that certain players meet (or can meet) the grade at the club. Marcos Rojo showed against Feyenoord that he’s nowhere near a solution at left-back, and while he’s occasionally performed adequately centrally, left-back isn’t where he belongs. Phil Jones tore ankle ligaments without playing a single minute this season. Rojo, coming in as a replacement for Shaw, had the worst individual cameo for United this season, while Jones looks a cut below Daley Blind, Eric Bailly, and Chris Smalling before his injuries are considered.
There is also a problem, to a smaller degree, with the likes of Antonio Valencia and Marouane Fellaini. Both have performed admirably so far this season, but their lack of technical suitability and general ability was exposed in the derby. Both are decent squad players, but to think they are starting options in big games is poor judgement. United can’t replace the entire squad in one season, and it isn’t a priority to remove them until better options usurp them, but it is a requirement to know that they aren’t suitable for the team and recognize replacements; the likes of Matteo Darmian, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin represent younger, more technical options, and if they aren’t favoured, Mourinho should be dipping into the market.
United has a massive squad, and most of the options are of a high quality, but now is the time to slowly replace the older with the younger and the less effective with the more effective. Jesse Lingard has earned a lot of praise despite not doing much. He must fight for his place in the side, like Juan Mata, as much as everyone loves him. Ashley Young hasn’t started a game and it is strange that he remained in the squad in retrospect, Memphis is the one who needs game time to develop, and Young is United’ ninth attacking option.
The second issue is a tactical plan, as a formation, 4-2-3-1 is ineffective in most cases. United played in a 4-3-3 against Feyenoord, the proper choice, but there were undeniable teething issues. With Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata up top, the plan should be to control the game and try and put them behind- Herrera and Pogba’s specialty. United seems comparatively unlikely to control possession as they would under Louis van Gaal.
If last year’s midfield dominance is combined with the risky passes, quick tempo, individual brilliance and defensive shape this year, the foundations are formidable. Then, with match control similar to United’s match against Hull City but with a greater plan, United can use different options for impact; for example, Ibrahimovic can look to drop deep and draw defenders out for runs in behind, or Rashford can pick up the ball in central areas and run forward.
Thirdly, the players who deserve to play need to play in the right roles. Daley Blind, Chris Smalling, and Eric Bailly seem to have a defensive rotation trio based on form, hopefully, all three continue to get a chance. The same needs to occur with a fourth defender, as well as in every other position, but it doesn’t seem to.
The most obvious example of this relates to Wayne Rooney, who is both a piece of deadwood and a player who is rewarded for being astonishingly poor. There is no reason as to why he continues to play in the team, considering the Feyenoord match proved that he is the only reason for which the side is playing 4-2-3-1. Removing Rooney from the team will begin a fully competitive stake for places, and perhaps a recovery from the England skipper, who plays better football when he has something to prove.
United is a good side, and a threatening side, for the first time in a while, but there are problems that are preventing the Red Devils from being a great side again. The Premier League is on the road back to the top with many foundational managers at the helms of the biggest clubs; Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have a long-term vision and Ronald Koeman looks destined to see Everton become the seventh of a big six. Jose Mourinho needs to prove that he can also lay down the foundations for a generation of success.
This is a problem at Old Trafford without a doubt- not a crisis, but definitely a problem. United will make the grade without too many doubts, but Mourinho and United fans want to win the Champions League, and therefore, that should be the ultimate goal. Everything needs to be fixated on joining the European big three of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Real Madrid.
That isn’t going to happen with the likes of Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones as depth options. Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valencia have promising attributes but they’re not options for the future or for the technicality. United’s mid-age attackers (Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young) have a lot to do if they’re to prove they’re good enough to win the Champions League. United needs a system that brings the best out of the players- the difference between United and City during the derby was Guardiola’s ability to coax a performance from Kevin De Bruyne. Players need to be rewarded for good form and Rooney needs to become the second fiddle to everyone else instead of it working vice versa.
Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City are building the foundations of world-class teams, as are United, but if these changes aren’t made, United won’t take the final steps. City, Liverpool and Chelsea at the pinnacle of football without United would be the most blinding sight of the tumultuous post-Ferguson era. United can have an advantage on those three, but the final steps need to be taken; will they be taken?