United ended 2017 with another disappointing draw against mid-ranking opposition. This time they failed to defeat a poor Southampton side who had just conceded five goals against Spurs. In truth, there was never a moment when the Reds looked like winning. Lukaku was forced off with a nasty looking injury early in the first half and was replaced by Rashford, which in truth may have affected the team’s ability to attack. United had a penalty shout turned down, when the ball hit Yoshida’s outstretched arm in the area. At the final whistle, boos rang out around Old Trafford, the fans unhappy with yet another terrible performance.
The following are the major talking points from the game:
This current tactical setup isn’t working
United have stuck with the current 4-2-3-1 shape throughout December in what has undoubtedly been their worst period of form this season. This simply isn’t working. The middle two of Pogba and Matic leaves the central of midfield far too exposed. Opposing teams are now able to pick the ball up outside their own area and stride through the centre of the pitch at ease. It also doesn’t seem to get the best out of Pogba, who struggles to lay on chances for his teammates from such a deep position. The solution would be to add another central player to allow Pogba to go forward. Whether or not Mourinho will do this remains to be seen.
The attacking play often ends up being far too cumbersome and devoid of ideas. Mata and Mkhitaryan rarely have an influence and the link up play is disjointed, with many passes going behind or infront of players. The squad need to work on their attacking cohesion if they’re going to have any chance of securing a second place finish.
Lukaku injury gives Mourinho a selection headache
Lukaku only lasted 8 minutes on the field before Wesley Hoedt nutted him in the back of the head. It wasn’t deliberate, but the striker lay on the ground for around 5 minutes while the medical team attended to him, obviously cautious not to cause any further damage. At the time of writing we don’t know how serious the injury is, other than United didn’t feel the need to send Lukaku to hospital. But Jose has ruled him out of the next two fixtures while also confirming that Ibrahimovic is also out for a month.
So who should play upfront? The two options in the senior squad are Rashford and Martial, who have both featured there this season. In fact it was Rashford who was chosen on Saturday and it’s likely that he’ll continue there for the foreseeable future. However, this now limits Jose’s options in the wide positions. If the injuries to Ibrahimovic and Lukaku are long term, it will be interesting to see if Mourinho feels he needs reinforcements. Will he go and purchase a player? Or perhaps he will look to the younger players, either by recalling Andreas Pereira or calling up a youngster already in the academy?
United in a battle for the top four
At the start of this month it looked like United would definitely finish in the top four. Now, although they are still 7 points clear of Spurs in 5th (although Spurs still have a game in hand) they are very much in a battle to remain in the top four.
Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs all look like far more settled sides and arguably play much better football than United. United also have a rather tough January, going away to Everton, Burnley and Spurs, which on current form all look like games the Reds will struggle to win. Mourinho has to work fast, or this dip in form may turn into a slide down the table. The boos are already starting, if after January the Reds haven’t improved, it’s going to be a painful few months until the end of the season.