Manchester United have fallen eight points behind Premier League leaders Manchester City after their latest loss, a 1-0 reverse to Chelsea. Here are three things they need to do to get back on track.
Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea means that Manchester United picked up only four points from the 12 available between the last international break and the one that’s just begun. While there’s no shame in losing at the home of the champions, the result deepened the sense of the team in a slump.
United returned from the last international break level on points with Premier League leaders Manchester City, but they’re now eight points behind their neighbours, albeit still in second place. They’ve scored only two goals in their last four league games, after starting the season in good enough goalscoring form to have only scored one fewer goal than City heading into the last international break. That gap is now up to 15.
So what do Jose Mourinho‘s side have to do to get their title challenge back on track?
MOURINHO NEEDS TO BE PRAGMATIC – AND START ATTACKING AGAIN
When United won the Europa League final last season against Ajax, Mourinho called it a victory for pragmatism. But a pragmatic strategist would have seen the defensive frailties of Liverpool and Chelsea and tried to exploit them, especially with an attack that, before this four-game slide, had scored 21 goals in their opening seven games.
Mourinho, instead, stuck to his dogma of reactive football. It “worked” against Liverpool by completely denying them the sort of chances they’re used to, but the 0-0 draw at Anfield started a run of three games out of four in which United dropped points. The approach paid off against an in-form Tottenham, and it was fair for Mourinho to point out that his players deserved more credit for a 1-0 win against a team that put four past Liverpool and three past Real Madrid.
But United’s record in away games against the rest of the top six (the Spurs win was at home) under Mourinho – key stat: zero wins – shows that the 54-year-old’s approach isn’t working. And it isn’t just away games – since Mourinho took over, United have only three wins overall against the rest of the top six, with five draws and five losses in the other games.
A true pragmatist would have attacked against Chelsea and Liverpool.A true pragmatist would have attacked against Chelsea and Liverpool.
KEEP POGBA FIT
For anyone that says it’s no excuse for a side that has spent as much as United have, Paul Pogba‘s absence has had a domino effect on the rest of the team – and as a result – has definitely played a part in this slump. Pogba’s attacking instincts and ability command the attention of any defence, and that affords space to Henrikh Mkhitaryan, which helps the rest of the attack flow and makes it easier for the Armenian to link up with Romelu Lukaku. Ander Herrera, for all his endeavour, work rate, and ability both going forward and defensively, can’t provide what Pogba does.
The Frenchman is supposed to return after the international break, and it will be no surprise if United’s attack regains its sheen once that happens. After that, the priority has to be to keep the club’s record signing fit. He’ll make everyone around him better.
Pogba’s return could see things fall into place for United’s attack. Pogba’s return could see things fall into place for United’s attack.
A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE NEEDED TO RESTORE BELIEF
The eight-point gap to Man City, and the imperious form of Pep Guardiola‘s side, could make it seem like the Premier League title is out of reach. But Mourinho will definitely not throw in the towel, and neither will his team. It’s only November, after all.
Also, putting the latest run of results into perspective: while four points against Tottenham, Liverpool, and Chelsea isn’t great, it’s also not disastrous given that included trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge. United could have undoubtedly played better in those games and thus possibly earned more points, but a win and a draw from those three fixtures is usually acceptable, if not desirable or ideal. It’s the shock loss to Huddersfield Town that has really hurt the team – no one would be worried if the gap was five points, rather than eight.
But as good as City have looked, United need to believe that their neighbours will slip up. The packed fixture schedule of December and January will be tough to navigate, and City will have to face United and Spurs in successive weeks next month – arguably the two best defences City will have come up against so far this season.
The doom and gloom will only be lifted with results, of course, but Mourinho needs to hammer home the message to his players that the title is nowhere near out of reach.
If United are facing a crisis of confidence right now, then getting out of it comes down to belief. They know what they’re capable of at their best. Believing that they can rediscover it, and that they can plug away at the gap, is going to be crucial.