Jose Mourinho quite publicly bemoaned the performance of his misfiring front three following last Saturday afternoon’s 0-0 draw with the most un-inventive of West Bromwich Albion teams with the result all but confirming that the Reds will have to win the Europa League to participate in next season’s Champions League.
Saturday was a hangover from the Louis van Gaal era yet in truth there have been too many occasions like it with Mourinho’s charges having drawn eight of their fifteen league matches at Old Trafford this term.
The difference between last season and this is that United are creating chances now, the attacking football is far more inventive than under the Dutchman yet taking chances is still the team’s weak point.
This isn’t necessarily new either with many supporters able to remember Van Gaal being frustrated by his team’s inability to take chances, the only difference being the veteran coach felt creating one chance in a match was enough to deserve a victory.
It is peculiar to watch how the current iteration of Manchester United seem to struggle when faced with a tightly packed defensive line.
They run out of ideas far too quickly.
Of course it mustn’t be forgotten that United were without three of their best players in Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera, absences on that scale with impact any team.
The trouble is that it is this profligacy that in all likelihood will cost Mourinho a top four finish this season because most other aspects of the team’s play are impressive.
Go back and watch Arsenal host Manchester City last Sunday afternoon and whilst the match was exciting and full of chances, there wasn’t an ounce of defensive strength between the two teams.
Both were embarrassed in the Champions League and it is little surprise when you see how they are structured at the back.
It is no exaggeration to say Manchester United are better defensively than both of them, the club have lost just three matches all season and are unbeaten since the infamous 4-0 defeat to Chelsea back in October.
This is title winning form if the defensive solidity could be backed up with goalscoring performances at the other end.
Perhaps this is why there doesn’t seem to be too much panic around Old Trafford at the moment.
In the current era of embarrassing wealth within the English top flight, Champions League qualification doesn’t necessarily mean as much as it did in the mid-to-late noughties when Arsene Wenger seemed to value it higher than his supporters did.
However, for Manchester United it is important to get back to the stage they feel they belong at, as well as keeping an eye on the financial implications if they fail to qualify with it expected that such a failure will see their sponsorship with Adidas decrease by £20 million.
The aforementioned lack of panic may well stem from the fact it is easy to see where the club is going under Mourinho’s stewardship.
People will be unhappy with the way Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw have failed to thrive and rightly so, yet the Portuguese coach has sold successfully before and will be keen to prove he can again if it is for the good of the team.
Only a couple of players short
United are only a couple of players short and rather unusually they all come in one area of the pitch. Ibrahimovic’s goals have acted as a masking agent for the failures of those around him with only Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata really contributing in front of goal.
Martial is the most talented footballer the club has after Pogba but he simply hasn’t been able to get the team going when they need him the most with the West Bromwich fixture a perfect example.
There have been times where the Frenchman has been exceptional, the home fixture with Middlesbrough on New Year’s Eve springs to mind, but as his coach pointed out, the consistency just isn’t there.
Antoine Griezmann will be heavily targeted once the season ends with it believed in some quarters that it is now merely a case of the Manchester club invoking the French forward’s buy-out clause of around £90 million.
Regulation changes in relation to tax in Spain mean this is now a more straightforward process for the buying club if the selling club wants to keep hold of their player and Jose Mourinho will be very keen on securing Griezmann’s signature after chasing him during his last spell with Chelsea.
Problem with creating chances
Creating chances is also an issue and it would be a major surprise if Andreas Pereira didn’t receive a chance in the first-team once he returns from a fantastically successful loan spell in La Liga with Granada.
He has wowed supporters in Andalusia with his ability to create chances from almost nothing and it is this spark that Manchester United could do with ahead of the 2017/18 campaign.
For the moment, it is all about finding positive results once more and given United’s defensive strength, you have to feel that this will only come once they find the net more regularly.
With Liverpool winning last Saturday, a top-four finish may be unlikely but as long as the club is still alive in the Europa League the season can still be a successful learning period ahead of the Portuguese coach’s second season at Old Trafford.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4
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