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Where is the fight? Manchester United have improved under Jose Mourinho but some players are letting the side down too

Manchester United have been pretty poor this season. Not all the time, but recently has been a big issue. United started the season in fine form, scoring ten goals in the opening three Premier League matches of the season – winning all three matches. September came, after the first international break of the season, which commenced with a 2-2 draw to Stoke City – the first conceded goals of the season and the first shared points. What was the reaction from the manager, Jose Mourinho, and his players? Six straight victories. That is a response to the shock at Stoke.

United won three Premier League matches, two UEFA Champions League matches, and one Carabao Cup match, scoring 20 goals (22 including the ones at Stoke), conceding two goals (four including the ones at Stoke). It seemed like it was going to be a good season at the time. United had fallen for the first time, got back up and fought for the remainder of the month. The second international break came and went and Liverpool at Anfield was on the horizon. There was a big build-up for the game, which went out with a fizzle – a 0-0 draw.

October saw United beat Benfica twice in the Champions League, fall to their first Premier League defeat, away to Huddersfield Town, also beating Swansea City in the Carabao Cup and sending Tottenham Hotspur packing without any points from the Theatre of Dreams. Those five points dropped in the league were enough to cause a problem for United. That problem was Manchester City taking advantage and going for the kill in contention for the Premier League title – which helped their lead in the table, which stands at 16 points currently.

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During the month of November, United had an opportunity to show themselves, facing Chelsea, the third match against a top six team from the previous season. United did not have a good record at Stamford Bridge, that still stands to this day after a 1-0 defeat. That was the start of a month which would ask more questions than it answered. Mourinho’s side bounced back from defeat by hammering Newcastle United 4-1, after going behind. A defeat in the Champions League followed against Basel before back to back wins against Brighton and Hove Albion and Watford.

December showed some fight. A 3-1 victory over Arsenal at the Emirates with Jesse Lingard doing the Milly Rock, then a 2-1 victory in the Champions League against CSKA Moscow saw United qualify for the round of 16 in the competition. A defeat at home in the Manchester derby showed signs of trouble which victories against Bournemouth and West Bromwich Albion, but a defeat to Bristol City in the Carabao Cup drew more negativity, which closely followed two 2-2 draws against Leicester City and Burnley and a 0-0 draw with Southampton. A poor end to 2017.

Five clean sheets in the Premier League and the FA Cup set up a great start to 2018 but the 2-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on the 31st January, in which Phil Jones scored for Spurs, ended the month on a sour note, with the teams fight, style of play, and attacking ability starting to be questioned. Huddersfield were up next at the start of February, where United would need to overcome that defeat earlier in the season. They did. But Newcastle United beat them in their next match. Another victory over Huddersfield came, in the FA Cup, before a 0-0 draw in Seville.

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United were starting to show signs of inability to win matches but defend well, stopping an onslaught in Spain. The reverse fixture at Old Trafford could be the turning point. United responded by beating Chelsea 2-1 at Old Trafford, then beating Crystal Palace 3-2 – coming from behind in both matches. Then the masterstroke – beating Liverpool 2-1 at Old Trafford with Ashley Young nullifying the in-form Mohamed Salah. Momentum was being built, which soon turned to nothing as Sevilla knocked United out of the Champions League. Mourinho was being questioned.

United did bounce back from defeat by knocking Brighton out of the FA Cup, winning 2-0 but it was far from a brilliant performance. Luke Shaw was hooked at half-time, other players did little and Nemanja Matic was described as an island for the amount of work he put into the match, assisting Romelu Lukaku’s opener, scoring himself late in the game. More questions were being asked of Mourinho, his style of play and management, also whether he was the right man to lead United into the future. No matter what those on social media say, I will back the manager.

There is a lot of deadwood at Manchester United, players who are not performing to the levels they should be. It is easy for the newspapers to suggest this is down to the manager, they don’t know that for a fact. In fact, there are some conflicting reports in the media – some say the club’s board is not sure about Mourinho, others say the board fully backs him. After all, he signed a new contract weeks ago, if the board did not back him, that would not have happened.

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There are players in defence who are not performing this season. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have been criticised by the manager and the supporters – most want to see both sold on with United actually moving forward. Luke Shaw had potential when he arrived at the club nearly four years ago and that ‘potential’ is still being talked about today. I might be missing something, or other might be missing the entirety of this but if your potential is being lauded nearly four years after you signed for the club, it is obvious you have not reached your expectations.

Antonio Valencia has been lauded as the best right-back in the Premier League. He’s not. He is good at what he does but United need to have other options. Timothy Fosu-Mensah could give that next season. Ashley Young has had a good season, showing the fight, determination and the level of acceptance, by Mourinho’s standards of a professional footballer. Being utilised as the main left-back may not be ideal but it is the way this season is panning out. There are also questions over Victor Lindelof, but it is his first season at United, next season will be telling.

Daley Blind is another who does not seem t have a role at the club currently. Yes, he has been injured for a while, but he’s not a solid defender and certainly not an option in midfield anymore, not with Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay and Marouane Fellaini all being highly rated by Mourinho, not to mention Paul Pogba, who I think is much better in a more advanced position – if he has the midfield cover behind him. Eric Bailly has been great when he has played, but had an injury-plagued season, along with Marcos Rojo, who must be doing well as he got a new contract recently.

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In midfield, United are not as great as they should be. Michael Carrick has been out of action for the majority of the season and the fact he will hang up his boots come the end of the season and possibly take a coaching role at the club is good to hear. Nemanja Matic has been a great signing, despite not lighting it up throughout the entire season. Scott McTominay has helped starting his career at the club this season. Ander Herrera has helped at times but does not seem to be a midfielder who has a place in the team. Paul Pogba has largely failed this season.

Recently, the Frenchman seems to not be bothered about playing, dawdling on the pitch and not doing the jobs he should be doing. If a midfielder plays in a two-man midfield and needs to have some defensive ability, that is what that player must do. Pogba is better in a three-man midfield on the left, or allowed to play in a more advanced position but that is not something that can be guaranteed all the time. Marouane Fellaini is expected to leave the club this summer but is a player trusted by Mourinho and the manager wants him to stay.

Fellaini does have his uses but in terms of having him around for the remainder of his career, it just does not bode all that well. Fellaini has been useful, but in terms of footballing ability, there are better players out there. Mourinho was expected to concentrate on the midfield at the club this summer, especially with both Fellaini (likely) and Carrick departing at the end of the season. Having Matic, McTominay, Pogba, and Herrera might be fine on paper but reinforcements will be needed.

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United also have problems in attack. The players, on paper, are some of the best players to play in the Premier League, when they are in-form and performing. Anyone manager who had Romelu Lukaku, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez, even Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, would be thrilled to have such attacking depth. Mourinho has never been known to play attacking football, opting to take a conservative approach, defending, but attacking in stages, or something similar to that. Supporters want to see attacking football, just attacking football.

This season, United have scored 89 goals in all competitions (two of them own goals) – 58 in the Premier League, 13 in the UEFA Champions League, 10 in the Emirates FA Cup, seven in the Carabao Cup, and one solitary goal in the UEFA Super Cup at the start of the season. Romelu Lukaku has scored 25 goals in these competitions, Jesse Lingard has scored 13, Marcus Rashford has 12 and Anthony Martial has 11. Last season, behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 28 goals, only Rashford (11), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (11) and Juan Mata (10) reached double figures.

One of the main things that has not been shown by the team, as a collective – whilst on the pitch, is fight, determination and the urgency to finish off their opposition. Whether this is something Mourinho advocates is unknown and can only be speculated about. But one thing is for sure, United have the attacking talent to finish off teams and win matches. They started off well earlier this season which shows that kind of desire. The defence and midfield are the problem areas – with more stability in midfield, added to a trusted defence, United’s attack could be much better.

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Early into Mourinho’s career at United, he did state it could take him three years to turn United around. United have improved in the time he has been at the club, the results are better, he’s won more, drawn fewer and lost fewer matches, although there are still eight Premier League matches left, plus another FA Cup game. It could all chance before the season’s end – for the better or for the worse. The thing is though, perhaps the problems are from more than one area – not just the manager. Therefore, allowing the time to make something good, should be afforded.

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