Comment - Identifying the fall guys as Manchester United slip from their perch
Manchester United headed into the last international break on the back of six straight wins, with the chorus of acclaim ringing bolstering the aura developing around Jose Mourinho and his free-scoring team.
Yet just seven games and three short weeks have decimated that mood, with Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Chelsea inspiring the odds-makers to move United out to 16/1 outsiders to be crowned as Premier League champions.
So who is to blame for United’s dramatic fall from their perch? Here is your Independent.ie verdict on the men in the middle of a mini-crisis that few saw coming 22 days ago.
The woeful record carved out by Mourinho in seven away games against top six Premier League rivals since he was appointed as United manager has been highlighted time and again since the defeat at Stamford Bridge and he needs to take ownership of statistics that undermine his reputation as a tactical master.
In the days when Mourinho was winning league titles with Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, he only had to concern himself with a couple of tricky away games against his leading rivals each season, so 0-0 draws in big away games were more than acceptable, so long as his team thumped the lesser teams into submission.
The trouble for Mourinho now is that his United side have five strong rivals battling it out in a competitive Premier League top six and that means five tough away games, with the 15 points on offer in those games now crucial to deciding the destiny of the title.
Mourinho tactics of diluting matches - or parking the defensive bus - are still hugely effective and he proved as much in the 0-0 draw against Liverpool last month, but single points are almost akin to defeats in a season when Manchester City are only trading in thumping victories.
In addition, Mourinho’s tactical negativity is a source of embarrassment to the club’s fans and he should use this international break to refresh his own approach on and off the field.
3 - Man Utd away league games 2017-18:— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 5, 2017
First 3 - 20 shots on target, 7 goals, 7 points
Last 3 - 6 shots on target, 1 goal, 1 point.
Mourinho took several months to convince himself that this Armenian midfielder could be trusted in his midfielder after his high profile move from Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2016, but he may well be revising that decision once again after his most recent displays.
Mkhitaryan is either out of form, not good enough to play in United’s midfield or not a player who will fit into Mourinho’s rigid structure and after his anonymous display against Chelsea on Sunday, it is hard to believe he will see too much Premier League action once Paul Pogba returns to the United line-up.
He has started ten of out of 11 Premier League games for Mourinho this season, but his lack of invention and carelessness with the ball has become increasingly frustrating.
The player operating behind United’s leading forwards needs to be mobile, inventive and capable of delivering a game changing moment, but Mkhitaryan does not appear to be capable of ticking any of those boxes.
United’s ‘transfer guru’ snared on some of the targets he was asked to sign last summer, but his failure to sign a speedy game changer in the final third of the field is hurting Mourinho’s side now.
Evidently, this team lacks a creative No.10 and while it remains to be seen whether Mourinho’s first choice of Inter Milan winger Ivan Perisic would have provided the answer, Woodward’s inability to get that deal over the line was a source of annoyance to the United boss.
At a time when Manchester City boast a glittering collection of gifted and fast moving midfielders in their harmonious orchestra, Woodward’s dealings over recent years have left United with a collection of players who fail to have the impact expected of top level performers.
Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Mkhitaryan all have similar qualities in the heart of a midfield battle, but none can be relied upon to crack open games against top tier opponents on a regular basis.
Mourinho will hope that the return of Paul Pogba - who Woodward signed only after agreeing to pay world record £89m fee to Juventus in 2016 - can solve the alarming lack of invention that has undermined United’s ambitions over the last month.
United’s £75m summer signing has had a horrible few weeks since the last international break, with seven goal less games made all the more uncomfortable by Mourinho’s eagerness to invent a story suggesting the club’s supporters had turned against him.
When the United boss hit out at the Old Trafford faithful for ‘booing’ Lukaku, there was a palpable sense of confused bemusement among supporters on social media.
A few gasps of exasperation at Lukaku’s lack of energy to chase a couple of balls in the 1-0 win against Tottenham hardly constituted a fans revolt, but Mourinho ensured this was the top of debate as he went public in his criticism of United fans on three separate occasions.
Lukaku’s form has to be a concern for United, but the lack of service coming his way is even more alarming, with the big Belgian forward not getting the kind of chances he was snapping up in the first six weeks of the season and, as a result, looking blunted.
However, the statistics confirm that Lukaku has scored seven goals in 11 Premier League games this season, so perspective needs to sprinkled on a player who should not be condemned so soon into his United career.
United’s form this season may have been acceptable if it were not for the sumptuous feast being served up on a weekly basis by Mourinho’s old foe Pep Guardiola and his Manchester City side.
The goals, the entertainment and the joy of watching City has been contrasted by very different emotions for United fans during the last month, as even the wins for Mourinho’s side - against Benfica and Spurs to name two - since the last international break were agonising to watch. 0
31 - With 31 points and a goal difference of +31, this is Pep Guardiola's best start after 11 games to a league season as manager. Stormer. pic.twitter.com/qiM2Zx5Krr— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 6, 2017
City’s rampant form sees them head into the final Premier League break of 2017 with an eight point lead over United, yet Mourinho’s men would have only be three points off top spot if they had accumulated 23 points from their first 11 games last season.
They only had 18 points at this stage of last season, so they are five points better off and while the gloom of the last few weeks has been hard to ignore at United, Mourinho may still argue that those statistics suggest progress of sorts has been made.