The United boss has done much to multiply the effects of a busy calendar in his misuse of players and tactical approach
They have been one of the most dominant teams in the Premier League this season but Manchester United head into a hectic April knowing they have outrun their opponents only three times in 27 Premier League games this season.
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Sometimes such a stat could be misleading since teams covering less ground could be either sluggish or simply better at making the ball do their work. But in truth, anybody who has watched Jose Mourinho’s side closely this season will find nothing about that statistic surprising.
One of the reasons United are down in fifth in the Premier League table is their inability to stretch opponents, and as they prepare to face West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford on Saturday, they do so dreading a repeat of countless home draws this season, in which visiting sides have found it too comfortable to defend against the Red Devils.
In many ways, their dominance this term has been of the staid, dull variety offered by Louis van Gaal 12 months previously. Much of the high possession rate has been racked up through passes in front of defences rather than behind them. Sure, chances have been missed, but their importance has been multiplied as a result of the lack of regular clear-cut efforts. The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba have all snatched at one-on-one chances, but United need to be good enough to overcome missed opportunities – and the truth is that they haven’t been to this point.
And it is thanks to Mourinho’s decision to play around Ibrahimovic come what may that they have delivered a pedestrian approach. Their performance at Middlesbrough last time out saw them employing far more speedy threats in the final third, and it was no coincidence that the Swede was unavailable for that trip.
Their poor league form has left them still needing to cover a lot of ground to reach the top four, meaning they cannot afford to rotate heavily in between their Europa League dates as they look to win that competition. Moreover, his choice to go with a shortened squad has come back to bite him too.
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West Brom arrive to find a United shorn of Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones through injury, and Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera thanks to suspension, while Marouane Fellaini is carrying a knock as well.
Yet the Belgian will likely line up alongside Michael Carrick in midfield simply because he has to. The pair represent United’s only options at the heart of the engine room due to Mourinho’s insistence that he not use the wealth of players available to him. He used Morgan Schneiderlin so little, the Frenchman was left begging to leave for Everton by January and the same has happened with Bastian Schweinsteiger in recent weeks after he had been ostracised earlier in the campaign by the Portuguese boss.
Mourinho admitted on Friday that his guilty conscience forced him to let the German leave for Chicago Fire. “When he was asking me to let him leave I had to say yes, because I did it once and I cannot do it twice,” he told a pre-match press conference. “So I feel sorry for the first period with him. I will miss a good guy, a good professional, a good influence in training.
“I couldn’t stop him going even knowing that until the end of the season we have so many matches and probably we would need him for a few matches or a few periods. I had to let him go and now publicly wish him and his wife a very happy life in Chicago.”
Mourinho went on to reel off a string of names he had available to him at the season’s start when he initially told Schweinsteiger he was surplus to requirements. “We still had Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay and we had Andreas Pereira and Tyler Blackett and James Wilson – we had a huge squad in the beginning.”
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Yet when they went to Middlesbrough two weeks ago, they did so with two apparently injured players on the bench and finished with six defenders sticking themselves between a struggling home side and the goal. Mourinho might claim to have a stretched squad because of circumstances, but he actually has numbers issues by his own doing.
He has spent various stages this term demanding more from Mkhitaryan, Martial and Luke Shaw before allowing them back in the first-team picture yet he has not really had the numbers to back up such a hard-line stance. Then comes the case of Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
Despite having the versatility to play at right-back, centre-back or in central midfield the young Dutchman has started only three times this season. The misuse of the 19-year-old means that at a time of the year when Mourinho could really do with as many options as possible fit and firing, Fosu-Mensah is very much a last-resort figure in his plans with no game-time of any description to his name since January. He’s not even been given the chance of a run-out with the under-23s.
But we shouldn’t be surprised at that given the general state of Mourinho’s youth policy. Marcus Rashford aside, there has been little hope for the youngsters. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has been rewarded for an excellent breakout season by being sent to Wolves on loan, left there despite being dropped to the U23s by new boss Paul Lambert, then called back to Manchester only on a game-by-game basis as and when United’s youth chief Nicky Butt has needed him. Surely a permanent recall would have made more sense?
Elsewhere, Andreas Pereira has spent the season with Granada, while Axel Tuanzebe and Joel Pereira were given a combined 32 minutes in the FA Cup against Wigan Athletic for no discernible reason other than to add two further statistics to Mourinho’s claim that he has blooded 50-plus youngsters in his coaching career.
It is a hotchpotch approach that has left Mourinho exactly where he deserves to be. With April here, his side have plenty of games to confront with reduced stocks and fatigued players because he decided to loan out, sell, overlook and alienate players that would have otherwise been available to him. United are not creating the chances to match the possession stats they have racked up due to the way he has chosen for his side to play. Even the sending off of Herrera should not have been a shock for a manager whose close-to-the-edge tactics in big games have often seen his sides first short of the full compliment.
He said on Friday that he will be doing no crying about the fact he has players unavailable – and nor does he have the right to. This is the situation he has brought on himself, now he has to show it was the right approach by getting the maximum possible performance level out of those players he has chosen to trust.
United need to get to the Champions League by hook or by crook. But if they don’t, Mourinho needs to be humble enough to take a fair portion of the blame.