Curran Critique: Defensive lapses to halt Manchester United’s return to the European Elite

Clean sheets win titles, is a typical cliché heard amongst pundits. Two goals conceded in games against relegation strugglers Crystal Palace, Stoke City and Watford highlights a worry trend for Jose Mourinho. Twenty-two goals conceded in twenty-nine Premier League games isn’t particularly worrying but defensive lapses could prove far more significant in cup competitions, that Manchester United are relying on to rejuvenate their season.

The first goal against Crystal Palace, a deflection off Victor Lindelöf, on the face of it was a fortunate strike for Andros Townsend. However, looking deeper into the build-up, Andros Townsend being able to cut inside on his stronger foot and shoot from less than 25 yards shows frailties in the defensive unit. As much praise Nemanja Matic got for his injury-time winner, where was his or Scott McTominay’s defensive shape as Andros Townsend cut inside and put Crystal Palace into the lead?

Similarly, for the second goal, a tactical foul is given away to break up play but then a quick free kick releases Patrick Van Aanholt one on one with David De Gea. Either Chris Smalling or Victor Lindelöf, should have been alert to a quick free kick and play breaking down Antonio Valencia’s side can only point to mentally switching off, as he has rarely been outpaced this season.

This is a worrying trend of defensive mistakes from Manchester United throughout the season which began at Stoke City in August, with two cheap goals by Eric Maxin Choupo-Moting. It’s hard to question a Premier League defence that is conceding less than a goal a game but the lapses in concentration are worrying. Patrick Van Aanholt finishing one on one and an Eric Maxin Choupo-Moting brace are not the world class opposition that Manchester United can expect to face in the latter stages of the Champions League.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane are all players that will capitalise on these defensive lapses. Jose Mourinho’s record in big games is worrying, only keeping one clean sheet at home to Tottenham Hotspur. This coupled with defensive lapses against teams in the lower end of the Premier League could put a dent in their European and domestic cup ambitions.

Over a course of a league season, defensive lapses tend to even themselves out. Only Manchester City have conceded less than Manchester United and only Liverpool and Manchester City have scored more. What is more worrying, is that defensive lapses will have a much larger impact in knockout competitions.

Jose Mourinho was infamous for nullifying attacking threats in his roles at Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Chelsea. Manchester United fans can only hope that these defensive mistakes are ironed out for the big games, otherwise challenging the European elite will turn into the distant dreams that surrounded the David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal era.