Monday 11 December 2017

Comment: Manchester United's attacking force starting to gel - and that's bad news for rivals

Goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, left, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, right, put Manchester United on course for victory at the King Power Stadium
Goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, left, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, right, put Manchester United on course for victory at the King Power Stadium

Miguel Delaney

It sums up a few things about Manchester United right now that, just two weeks after Wayne Rooney rescued a point against Stoke City by breaking the club’s scoring record, his absence through illness wasn’t even mentioned in the post-game press conference.

Jose Mourinho was actually asked about his new haircut before he was asked about his captain, and notional primary attacker.

That itself reflected the lighter mood of the day for United, and the nature of their easy 3-0 win over Leicester City. There was no need to mention Rooney because the team had no need for him. United instead put in one of their most ruthless attacking performances of the season so far, while scoring some of their best goals of the season so far. The way that Henrikh Mkhitaryan so sumptuously linked up with Zlatan Ibrahamovic, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata at various times showed the potential of the attack, and the variety of attacking options open to Mourinho.

And this was still with one of the most promising young forwards in the world in Anthony Martial on the bench, let alone the captain not even being involved.

Make no mistake, Mourinho has an exciting array of talent at his disposal, and there’s a lot of potential about what he can do.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho

One problem with those multiple options so far, though, is that they haven’t been single-minded enough in front of goal. Mourinho has brought it up himself, and their struggles to convert all that talent into goals is reflected in the fact that they have the worst scoring record of all the top six. That of course doesn’t reflect that they have created an awful lot of opportunities, and are actually ranked third in terms of big chances, but 33 goals in 22 games still doesn’t look too good given the players they have and so much of the ongoing debate about the manager’s football principles.

A return of 36 in 23 looks a bit better, and it’s impossible to deny that United just looked much better - and much more ruthless - in the win over Leicester.

They were impressively cut-throat, with that much-welcomed ruthlessness also coming from some elegantly sweeping moves between their attackers. The pick of the goals was probably the last, as Mata and Mkhitaryan interchanged to finally see the Armenian deftly slip the number-eight through for a precise finish.

It was just one of many moments in the game that saw Mkhitaryan elevate the general standard, and decorate an occasion that had effectively become a procession with some prize contributions.

It of course helped that they were facing a Leicester side that are still so surprisingly willing to cede entire tranches of the crucial area in front of their central defence in the absence of N’Golo Kante, and United aren’t going to get to play against a side so submissive most weeks. That extra space was key to the extra accuracy of their attacking.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan (C) celebrates with team mates Ander Herrera (21) and Juan Mata (8) as he scores their first goal during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium

At the same time, it also allowed one of the positives of Mourinho’s management to be properly highlighted. In that regard, there were some highly relevant comments from Eden Hazard in midweek.

The Belgian explained that Antonio Conte’s hands-on tactical coaching tends to be much more rigorous, and that the co-ordination of their attacking play leads to more “automatisms” - moves so intensely practised that they instinctively come off in matches. That is in contrast to Mourinho, who would put in place a defensive structure, but then generally give the attacking players freedom to just play.

The latter’s is probably a little outdated compared to how all the younger breed of managers work - where there are more concerted moves to integrate individual expressive with collective co-ordination - but does mean that top attackers on form have the space to just play. It can allow some wondrous pieces of play, as was so regularly seen against Leicester, with the fluent runs of Mkhitaryan and the touches of Ibrahimovic. There were many times when it seemed like a deeper, and very promising understanding was striking up between some of the players.

The challenge for Mourinho now, in order to properly take charge of a top-four spot and build for a title tilt next season, is to figure out his best attack; while also maintaining that exciting variety.

It is still a little open to question how much of this was down to United’s qualities, or Leicester’s abundant flaws.

The best response will be to keep scoring, to keep bewitching sides.

Independent News Service

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