Points to take away from United’s draw with Swansea City.
Theatre of Draws
As quickly as those draws against Everton and West Brom were forgotten after the Chelsea result, so too was that apparent turning point against the (potential) Champions-elect consigned to the windmills of our minds after another utterly abject home draw against relegation threatened Swansea City.
Those hoping that the landmark win would automatically herald a change were ignorant of two factors; Chelsea, unlike Swansea, came with much more positivity, and United then, unlike today, had more expected of them. Not that it comes down to just these two factors but it provides a good place where to start. Swansea started with a line up that Dean Saunders in the BT Sport studio suggested was likely to be a 4-6-0. The visitors were much more positive than that, and deserved to be in the lead before United fortuitously got a goal of their own.
Luke Shaw’s early injury was compounded by Eric Bailly’s second half withdrawal through injury, too. That meant United were left with—depending on which way you look at it—two full backs at centre half and two wingers at full back, or, three players who have been selected at right back playing in a four man defence.
A common theme in the snarky responses to the injuries United picked up was that it was all well and good blaming them today but what about the other home draws? Well, leaving aside the point that United have suffered from injuries for most of the season, well, the answers are obviously far more complex and it is bordering on idiotic and myopic to pretend they aren’t and to simply say United are rubbish.
It’s something we’ve debated at length on the Gordon Hill show and the podcast. United have struggled under the transition to a new manager, at a ground they have been vulnerable at since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. Opponents are less apologetic than ever about time wasting or playing for a draw because they know a result can be achieved. The answer? Well, clearly, United need to work on being much more prolific (or, to be fair, they don’t even need to be prolific, they could be a league average and improvement would be noticeable) and aggressive in home games. As with the problem, that doesn’t suggest the solution is so easy, but that’s the job of the manager—that’s why he’s paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a week and I’m writing a column on a fan website about it.
Mourinho isn’t to blame…
So that brings us on to him and the finger of blame which is being pointed squarely in his direction by some. It cannot be denied that his handling of players could be better—even if he can say his ends have by and large justified the means. It can’t be denied that with two transfer windows, and his public comments on the size of the squad, that a smaller squad is by design rather than accident.
However he can’t be held responsible for the number of injuries which have troubled his squad. He can’t be responsible for his first team having thirty chances at Old Trafford and only scoring one goal. Some players clearly need to improve, or, have already demonstrated that they aren’t good enough.
That’s the bigger picture and it’s a point not lost on most. In the immediate aftermath of today it’s worth pointing out that United looked exhausted and it’s difficult not to draw parallels with the very, very difficult conclusion of the 1991/92 season. Then as now, an intensive run of games had its impact and the team picked up injury after injury and disappointing result after disappointing result. This was something that Sir Alex later learned from but it would be unfair to say that was his fault back then.
Today United ended with only Antonio Valencia in their back line as a first choice defender and he came on as a substitute. It was suggested that their front line which ended the game was pretty much as strong as many would hope but a) that’s a matter for debate which undermines Paul Pogba’s absence and b) neglects the fact that a building is only as strong as its foundations. That vulnerable defence was at sixes and sevens due to poor positional sense for the best part of the entire game.
…but he isn’t blameless
A big debate on the Gordon Hill show and the podcast (listen to this week’s to get the drift) has been whether or not Mourinho is responsible for the injuries to his squad.
Point made by Dave—particularly with modern advances and facilities, players should be able to handle the workload of two games a week. Point made by Nipun—Mourinho has over-used his small squad and thus is paying the consequences. (Both Dave and Nipun will argue their points are not so simplistic, and they are right, but that’s the summary I need for the point I will make)
In the 1993/94 season, United, with a team of moderate drinkers, made it to both domestic Cup Finals in a 42 game league season. Overall there were 63 games played that season. Denis Irwin and Steve Bruce played sixty two games, Peter Schmeichel and Gary Pallister played 60, Ryan Giggs played 58, Paul Parker 56, Paul Ince 55, Mark Hughes 54. You get the idea.
However. Today, after Eric Bailly originally pulled up, he played on and ultimately had to come off. He was replaced by Matteo Darmian, who will probably be the left back on Thursday. When Luke Shaw came off, he was replaced by Antonio Valencia, undoubtedly the starting right back. These decisions were made instead of, for example, bringing off Bailly for Axel Tuanzebe.
This has been a point of contention on the podcast, particularly with the defence in recent weeks. However when the point was initially floated it was because Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were so error prone, it was a curious exercise to wonder exactly when and if Tuanzebe, and more pertinently Tim Fosu-Mensah, would be given their chance. Would Jose take that gamble? As it transpires, he would prefer to call upon that smaller unit of players, even if it means putting square pegs into round holes, even if it means putting them at the risk of injury. Eric Bailly’s was a muscle injury and it gives weight to the theory that he has played too much football without rest.
It’s no doubt a point Mourinho feels he needs to make when he calls into question the commitment of players like Smalling and Jones (particularly when he praised Juan Mata’s suspiciously quick recovery, too) but one can’t help but wonder if those words were on Bailly’s mind as he received treatment for his injury before returning to the field.
In this situation we can consider there are two risks—one from Mourinho, in playing a young defender who may make an error, and one from the potentially injured player, who may have to come off if he aggravates it further. If one party isn’t willing to take a risk but is happy to challenge the other party, then perhaps some of the attention should be re-directed.
Top 4 chances slim
Games, and time, are running out. United’s beleaguered form and dilapidated team makes it feel like an endurance exercise for the supporters, too, to get through this last run of games. With Arsenal and Spurs still to come away from home in the league hopes rest on the former having given up the ghost and the latter perhaps having already lost the league, or, the occasion of the last ever home game getting to them (a theory which didn’t quite work out last May against West Ham). Whenever it is back in United’s hands, they promptly throw away the advantage, and with eight players (nine if we include Paul Pogba who has yet to return) out injured, particularly with the majority of those coming to the defence, it’s difficult to envisage United getting another win this season (a pessimist’s view, admittedly).
Stranger things have happened, and perhaps in a crisis the squad could pull together and show resolve to get through against Celta Vigo. An optimist can look at the table and say despite all the well-founded criticism of their goal shy team, Liverpool and City only have a goal difference of two extra.
The reality is that top four qualification in either route, considering the injuries, and regardless of who’s to blame, would represent a minor footballing miracle at this point.