Five pressing questions for Manchester United as Jose Mourinho's grip on second place weakens
The race for second is hotting up as Liverpool closed the gap to just two points at the weekend.
How can they make the most of Paul Pogba?
Too often, United look like a bunch of expensively assembled individuals who grind out results than a well-oiled team, a consequence, to a large extent, of a clash of so many different managerial styles in such a relatively short space of time that has led, as one observer put it, to a Frankenstein-like squad.
No one looks more confused at the moment than midfielder Paul Pogba, whom Mourinho still seems unsure about how best to utilise and who was substituted for the second successive away game on Sunday after following up a sorry showing in the 2-0 defeat at Spurs with another forgettable outing in the 1-0 loss at Newcastle.
Graeme Souness, the former Liverpool midfielder, once again reiterated the view at the weekend that Pogba cannot be trusted in a midfield two, especially in bigger games, and the evidence certainly suggests the £89 million Frenchman is at his most effective on the left of a midfield three with less responsibility defensively and more freedom to drift wide.
He thrived at Juventus playing that role and his best performance for United this term came in a similar position in a 2-0 win against Everton last month.
Where have the goals gone?
Mourinho claimed United could have played for another 10 hours against Newcastle and not scored but his side’s problems in front of goal have been building for some time.
United have scored just 17 times in their past 12 Premier League outings, almost half the total of City over the same period, significantly less than Spurs (29) and Liverpool (28) and four fewer than Chelsea. Only once have they found the net more than twice in a league game in that time. By contrast, Chelsea and Tottenham have achieved that four times, Liverpool five and City on eight occasions.
Too many of their forwards on are barren runs. Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial each have six goals in their past 20 league games, Marcus Rashford just two in 20. Alexis Sanchez has scored once in three league fixtures since arriving from Arsenal - and that was the rebound from a missed penalty.
United have been leaning heavily on Jesse Lingard with seven goals in his past 14 league games but he has not scored in the last five of those.
Why are we still seeing Fergie's defence play?
Despite being without their best defender, Eric Bailly, since early November, United have the best defensive record in the Premier League. They are doing something right. But there are also clear questions.
United have spent upwards of £615 million since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 and yet against Spurs and Newcastle they fielded back fours compromising two of Ferguson’s old wingers (Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young) and two of his centre-halves (Phil Jones and Chris Smalling).
Against Newcastle, there were £75 million worth of defenders signed by subsequent managers on the substitutes’ bench. Mourinho keeps talking up Luke Shaw but picking Young. Victor Lindelof cost £30 million but has looked largely shell-shocked by the demands of playing for United and seldom been trusted. Marcos Rojo is dogged if not much more and no one should underestimate the importance of goalkeeper David De Gea.
It has mainly been in the big games that United’s defensive limitations are underlined.
Should fans be expecting more from Mourinho?
United's position is not a poor one by any means. They are still the best of the rest in the Premier League in points term, albeit 16 adrift of runaway leaders Manchester City, have a very winnable Champions League round of 16 tie against Sevilla to come and face Huddersfield Town on Saturday for a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals. So why are some supporters feeling rather cold and ambivalent?
There is certainly little of the consistent spark, electricity or fluency going forward evident at City, Liverpool and Spurs. United, put simply, are just not as entertaining to watch as those sides.
But Mourinho is also having a testing time of it. At his best, there was always absolute clarity of thought but tactical mistakes have been repeated – he put the same team that crashed and burned at Spurs out against Newcastle - and his thinking has appeared more muddled of late, struggling to find a system to make the most of what he has got in attack and midfield.
Can they turn it around in the run-in?
An awful lot will have to go wrong for United not to finish in the top four. They are two points ahead of Liverpool, three clear of Chelsea and have four more than Spurs but they could be forgiven for looking over their shoulder.
The momentum is currently with Liverpool and Tottenham, who have taken 20 and 21 points respectively from the past 27 available compared to just 15 from 27 for both United and Chelsea, who also face much tougher run-ins. Whereas Liverpool and Spurs each have just two top six sides to play in their final 11 fixtures, United must face Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal at Old Trafford and City away. Chelsea, similarly, have another four games against top six opposition.
Fourteen of the 27 points United have dropped have been in six games against top six sides and their record under Mourinho in those fixtures since he took charge is underwhelming – four wins and seven defeats from 16, with three wins from seven at home.
Other statistics reinforce the benefit of more games against those outside the top six. Just once in Premier League history have the top six accrued more points in total after the 27th round of fixtures than their current tally of 332. Fifteen of their combined 28 defeats this term have come against each other and never has the gap from sixth to seventh been higher at this stage than the current total of nine points, a sign of a widening gulf at the top perhaps.
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.