Don't Sleep on Manchester United
It would be naive to consider a team that consists of Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David De Gea, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, et co. to be outsiders in an incredibly competitive English Premier League title race. But that is the position Manchester United is currently in, as they sit in eighth place with fifteen points, eight points off the pace in terms of the marathon that is the EPL season. Marathons, however, are not won and lost in the first six or seven miles; they are won through grit, determination, and fitness. Challengers can emerge from behind at any moment, creeping up quietly to make their move; and yet, many pundits, analysts, rival fans, and social media “Einsteins” have been quick to let the guillotine slip on United’s title credentials this season. You would be foolish to believe such premature talk of United becoming dismantled.
Widespread claims that the £89m spent for French sensation Paul Pogba was an ill-advised purchase, that the 34-year-old Ibrahimovic is too slow for the pace of English football, or that Jose Mourinho – the most successful active coach in world football is no longer “special" are absolutely ridiculous. Yes, the Red Devils currently lie in eighth place. Yes, they also only average 1.3 goals per 90minutes, and lost recently 4-0 to Chelsea last weekend. But they are, by no means, “finished” as so many “experts” would have you believe. In the end, it is always the team with a successful system, abundance of talent, great depth, a brilliant manager, and a bit of luck that lifts the crown in May. United has all of those components.
Should United supporters be concerned about their slow start in the league? Maybe so, given their place in the table and because they seem to lack a clear system as well as any sort of luck. Moreover, questions remain over Mourinho’s team selection tendencies, as well as the overall system within which United must win points. Changes to these aspects of United’s performance can only come from the manager. Will Mourinho be able to adapt his philosophy to harness the full capabilities of the surplus of talent at United? Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, and Bastian Schweinsteiger are all players who should be starting in the first XI, week in and week out, because they are all brilliant players in their own respects, and should be no means just be warming the bench. Buying the Bundesliga Player of the Year, and not starting him in more than one match before November borderlines on ludicrous from Mourinho. Incorporating more high-class players into the starting side is a question only Jose can answer himself.
The tactics of the team, however, must change above all else. The rigid and compact 4-2-3-1 system, that Mourinho has preferred in big matches, restricts United in many ways. It limits penetration in the final third, inhibits lack of fluid progression through the midfield, and relies far too much on individual moments of brilliance to separate the sides.
A 4-3-3 formation would surely be more suitable for the players at Mourinho’s disposal. For instance, a midfield trio of Morgan Schneiderlin, holding at the base, with Pogba and Ander Herrera ahead of him would function together efficiently, because all three complement each other’s playing styles well. Schneiderlin’s ability to tackle, intercept, and read opposition movements is something that would help shield the back line, as well as free Pogba and sometimes Herrera to roam forward. Selecting the front three would be slightly trickier because Zlatan has struggled recently, and United could use more movement and guile in attack. However, a front three of Martial on the left, Mkhitaryan on the right, and Marcus Rashford through the middle would torment defenses with pace and creativity. This 4-3-3 formation, incorporated with the right players to play the system, would undoubtedly open up United’s attack, allow their star players to play in their best roles, as well as maintain solidarity in the back.
Outside of the changes that the manager must make to the team, there must also be improvement in performances from some of the players. Form has dipped when it has mattered most and considerable improvement will be needed if United are to start making ground on their rivals. Many experts and rival supporters have been quick to belittle the performances of Paul Pogba, since his world record transfer from Juventus, claiming that the 23-year-old Frenchman is not worth the cost that United paid for him. Claims that a 23-year-old UEFA Team of the Year midfielder, and Champions League, European Cup finalist, is overrated are contrary to the known properties of the footballing world. How is it possible for people to form overarching opinions over a player’s true ability, so early in his transfer to a club? History has shown that footballers often need an acclimatization period to mold their game to fit a new system of play. Many were critical of Mesut Özil, after his transfer from Real Madrid to Arsenal in 2013, for not producing enough for the team in the final third. Of course the statistics showed a dip in his rate of production in terms of goals and key passes per game; however, it was also evident that the player was world class with his on the pitch movement and abundance of creativity. Of course, only three years later, Özil is arguably the best attacking midfielder in the Premier League. I am sure those who doubted the player’s ability appear lost in terms of comprehending what playing good football actually is. Pogba is the same case as Mesut Özil, except for the fact that he has started even better. He has made 12 competitive appearances, scored three goals, averaged 2.4 successful aerial duels per game, and accumulated three “man of the match” performances. He would also have more assists in his statistical analysis if Zlatan could finish more of the brilliant chances Pogba has created. He has consistently been threatening with his marauding runs through midfield, and it is only a matter of time before he connects with a belter from distance.
The brilliant Frenchman is still finding his feet at Carrington and if given time to develop his talents, he will undoubtedly thrive in midfield for United. We all know what the man is capable of.
Of course, more than anything, the Red Devils need positive results. A recent victory over their rival, Manchester City, should boost sprits in the dressing room and for fans, but the team must start strong in November. Although many have been quick to dig United’s grave after their humiliating loss to Chelsea, they are by no means out of the hunt. Mourinho is simply too stubborn to be buried that quickly, and the team is far too talented. They are by no means favorites to lift the title in May, and I am not stating they will. But, given the quality of the squad, the experience of the coach, and the expectations of the fans – United will surly take steps towards fulfilling their potential by winning matches consistently.
Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of United, once stated, "If [Chelsea] drop points, the cat's out in the open. And you know what cats are like - sometimes they don't come home." City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Tottenham supporters should be vigilant because of the early storm United has had to endure with their tough early schedule. The intense scrutiny will only drive the reds forward with more desire to prove doubters wrong, and should the pack leaders drop points, they will be waiting to pounce. United is still very much alive in the title fight. Don’t write them off just yet.