It’s been a rough week for Manchester United. The building momentum I wrote about last time collapsed in the next 90 minutes of Premier League football. In between, José Mourinho’s men made a positive start to the Champions League season against Young Boys, but their domestic winning run came to a frustrating end with the 1-1 draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Not once, but many times throughout the pre-season Mourinho pointed out this could be a difficult season for his team. It seems he was right. The Wolves draw was followed by an unexpected exit from the Carabao Cup as Frank Lampard’s Derby County won at Old Trafford on penalties. But that’s not the only problem United are facing at the moment. The most recent one is Paul Pogba losing his captaincy due to negative comments about the team’s tactics.
Pogba was spot on with his tactics comment
“When we are at home, we should attack, attack, attack”, said Pogba when talking about Manchester United’s tactics after the Wolves draw.
Mourinho couldn’t take this criticism so he reacted instantly. Shortly before Tuesday night’s defeat to Derby, the boss informed Pogba he will not captain United again, after the 25-year-old French midfielder had lead the side in three games this season. This dealt a further fracture to their already fragile relationship. While we can argue about whether somebody is or isn’t bigger than a club, Pogba’s comment was on point and I’ll explain why.
Before that, I want to point out Mino Raiola’s protegé isn’t a whining youngster who just moans about his manager’s tactics. We’re talking about a key midfielder of France’s national team who brought gold home from Russia this summer. His capacity and football intelligence are already enough to recognize where United’s obvious problems in attack lie.
Last season the main subject was his position on the field. Initially, Mourinho used the Frenchman as an anchoring midfielder, but now he’s being deployed higher up the pitch, usually on the left of a midfield three.
Per Twelve’s stats, Paul Pogba is United’s best ‘overall’ and ‘attacking’ performer this season, but there is a general impression that others don’t contribute as much as they should. It seems Mourinho has finally found a perfect position for Pogba but now he has a problem in utilizing others within that system. You can’t expect the French international to score bags of goals and drive United forward alone. Football is a team game and can rarely be won by one person.
To prove Pogba righteously criticised his team’s approach on home soil, we compared the first three home games among the Premier league’s ‘big six’. Manchester United rank fifth for average expected goals (with 1.57) and only Arsenal have been worse with 1.09 (as per InfoGoal data). This says a lot about Mourinho’s United when playing in front of their own fans and adds weight to Pogba’s comments.
Fix the Sanchez issue
Another issue which needs solving at United is Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean is a shadow of the player who terrorized defences in an Arsenal shirt. Just eight months ago it seemed United had ‘robbed’ the Gunners with the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan swap, but now the tables have turned.
The Premier League’s highest-paid player has failed to find the net for his new side in 693 minutes. Sanchez’s eight shots this season have registered a combined 0.56 xG which is worrisome for a £35 million acquisition. Sanchez’ tenure at Old Trafford has been far from ideal but that doesn’t mean he should be written off.
The only reason why the 29-year-old Chilean is getting more minutes than Anthony Martial is his impressive work-rate and incisive passing ability. He manages to do the most (2.95) key passes per 90 minutes in the squad. Mourinho’s patience with him is unexpected but if something doesn’t change in how Sanchez performs, it’s a matter of time before the United boss will fire his ‘poisoned arrows’ towards the attacking midfielder.
Expect the unexpected with United
There was a time when you could easily predict a large proportion of United’s games, but after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement that became almost impossible. United have already shown an ability to bounce back after back-to-back defeats to Brighton and Tottenham and they’re asked to do so again.
The preview for this fixture has been made doubly hard by their opponents: West Ham United. The Hammers started a new season under new manager Manuel Pellegrini with four dismal defeats, though they have recovered since by beating Everton and securing an excellent goalless draw against Chelsea. An 8-0 win is always good for confidence too, even if it was against League Two opposition in the Carabao Cup.
United have an outstanding record against West Ham: just two defeats in their last 25 meetings in all competitions, but the two sides drew this fixture goalless at the end of last season. The Hammers showed plenty to upset Chelsea on Sunday, and that will certainly encourage Pellegrini to adopt exactly the same game plan against Mourinho’s side.
The Portuguese coach highlighted that the Wolves draw was a ‘mental situation where one team was coming to play the game of their lives and other to relax’. United need to fix their approach or they will have another frustrating weekend.