A lot has been made of Manchester United, manager Jose Mourinho, and the biggest characters in the dressing room this season. The stories following each most recent disappointing result seem to spiral the situation into more of a soap opera script as opposed to sporting analysis. But, with mounting pressure from the press and the legendary club sitting with as many wins as losses after the first couple months of the season – three wins, three losses, one draw in seven games – fans have begun to wonder if Manchester United have what it takes to get into the top four this season.
Much of the 2018/19 season has yielded peculiar results considering the protagonists, such as Manchester United looking weak and inconsistent, as well as the Jose Mourinho team being very weak in defence, on which his tactics are still largely based. Pressure is mounted higher as their neighbours, Manchester City, continue to dominate the Premier League and spend upwards of £230 million on defenders over the last couple of seasons, per The Telegraph as of the 30th of January.
There’s word of the club sacking its manager, the biggest players moving away, and much more. So, amidst this madness, can Manchester United right the ship and retain their place in the top four, or is the Premier League’s holy land already out of reach?
Take a leaf out of the North American books.
There’s a mantra in the major sports leagues in North America that simply states ‘defence wins championships’. While it has been known in football around Europe for decades that a strong defence can be the basis of greatness, these words aren’t uttered anywhere near as much on this side of the Atlantic.
Manchester United’s squad hosts one of the weakest defensive corps that it’s seen in a long time. As admirably as they’ve performed, the first-choice right and left backs are veteran wingers – with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young clocking in as the oldest outfielders in the team at 33 years old – who have been moved back to the defence through necessity over the last few years. As for the centre-backs, Chris Smalling stands as the only player showing that he has some level of defensive know-how while Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof, and Phil Jones flounder around the box like fish out of water whenever an opponent comes close. Gone are the days of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister or Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
The defence continues to fail Jose Mourinho’s trusted defensive schemes and world-class goalkeeper David De Gea. The midfield looks strong when fully available, as does the group of forwards competing for a first-team place – bar Alexis Sanchez who has done next to nothing to keep a hold of his perpetuate starting place – but the defence is struggling immensely. Because the club boasts the name of Manchester United, they’ll be in the conversation for the top four for a while, but as of the 5th of October, they sit sixth in the odds at 2/1 with Betway to get into the top four, sitting behind the 7/4 Arsenal and 8/13 Tottenham Hotspur. Both London clubs and all above them boast more trusted defences than the Red Devils and are reaping the benefits of their performances.
Given the severity of the problems at the back, it seems very unlikely that Manchester United will be able to mount a serious challenge on the top four unless Mourinho rips up his tactics and goes for an overwhelming attacking strategy to mask his defence’s frailties – as Liverpool did for much of the last couple seasons. Luckily for United fans, in the Premier League, hopes can be rekindled in the winter transfer window.
Manchester United must sign players
IMAGE SOURCE: NOW TV Sport, via Twitter
A clear point of contention at Manchester United is between Jose Mourinho and the executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. In the summer, despite the continued glaring need for some defenders and Mourinho’s asking for some, Woodward returned 19-year-old right back Diogo Dalot who started four games for Porto in Liga NOS last season.
Ed Woodward reasoned his decision to not sign high-profile centre-back Toby Alderweireld as effectively swapping their fifth-best central defender for another fifth-best central defender, per The Guardian. Since Mourinho has joined Manchester United in 2016 with aspirations of challenging for the title, his club has delivered the notoriously defence-minded boss three defenders staggered across each year of his tenure. Everton, Chelsea, and Manchester City have spent more on defenders according to the calculations of Transfermarkt to the 5th of October, with City buying five high-profile defenders in 2016/17 and 2017/18 and spending a total of £237.15 million to United’s £85.50 million.
To rectify the season and potentially mount a challenge on the top four, Manchester United needs to sign ready-made, top-quality centre-backs as a priority. January has to be a window of spending. It may not yield immediate stability, as Virgil van Dijk’s £71 million move didn’t last season, but it will set the team on the right path. But, to do this, the club should listen to its manager and fans who are calling for Ed Woodward to hire a director of football to handle the United’s transfer policy. Given the strength of Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, and the resurgent Chelsea, it seems unlikely that United will push for the top four without some major moves in the January transfer window.