After one-third of the Premier League season, Manchester United are second, three points ahead of Chelsea, four ahead of Arsenal, five ahead of Tottenham and six ahead of Liverpool.
Not bad, right? Fans would have accepted that at the start of the season, given that it represents continued improvement, as does the team topping its Champions League group. There’s one problem, however: Less than two weeks ahead of derby day at Old Trafford, Manchester City’s eight-point advantage is a significant dampener upon United spirits.
United have the league’s best defence and, despite the absence of regular centre-backs Phil Jones and Eric Bailly, kept a ninth clean sheet in 13 games against Brighton on Saturday. Indeed, the best players in the 1-0 win were defenders Victor Lindelof and Ashley Young. The problem with that is, when defenders are singled out for praise against a promoted team at home, it shows something isn’t falling into place.
Despite accusations that he is often too defensive, Jose Mourinho started with four forwards against Brighton, only to later admit that was too many because “you lose control of the game.” He also pointed to Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba being isolated in midfield.
The previous week, when a similarly attacking XI started against Newcastle, it made for the most entertaining home game of the season and a 4-1 United win. But part of the attraction was that the opposition could have scored three times in the first half; a better team probably would have.
United were far less creative against a well-organized Brighton side, who were backed by excellent travelling support and took their full ticket allocation. Mourinho would later praise United’s fans but, until Lindelof flew into a 55th minute challenge, Old Trafford was flat. United’s manager criticized the three players — Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial — who played off No. 9 Romelu Lukaku.
“They didn’t get the ball; they were not success in the ones against one,” said Mourinho. “Marcus didn’t have a happy match at all.”
It happens and more consistency should come with age for the 20-year-old. Meanwhile, Mourinho did not criticise Lukaku, instead praising him as he talked of the striker’s “humble” side toward the end of the game, with “Lukaku playing wide on the left, chasing defenders”.
Later, Mourinho said of events around United’s goal that “Lukaku was phenomenal for his effort to fight for the ball.” The Belgian international remains flavour of the month in the eyes of his manager, who put so much effort into his signing when the player himself thought he was going to Chelsea.
One reason that players like their boss is because they feel he usually protects and backs them. Mourinho is supportive of Lukaku and his wider contribution to the team but, after a sensational start during which he scored seven goals in his first seven league matches, the goals have dried up. And not just for Lukaku: United’s total of seven in the last six — four of which came vs. Newcastle — followed 21 in the opening seven league games.
The strength of opponents also has to be taken into account. None of United’s first seven games were against teams in the Top 10, whereas Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool have been on the fixture list in recent weeks. Facing Arsenal and Man City in the next three matches will continue to give a truer picture. When asked on Saturday why goals have been harder to come by, United’s boss gave an honest reply.
“I don’t know,” said Mourinho. “In the Champions League (vs. Basel) we played one of the best football away from home and it should have been 6-0 but it was 0-0. I’m not happy with that but today we score 1-0 and the three points was enough. In the end we speak about what we want and it’s the points. ”
If Lukaku scores against eighth-placed Watford on Tuesday, they’ll be the highest-placed team against whom he has found the net for United. Every striker goes through lean spells and, with eight goals, he remains the joint-fourth top scorer in the league, one behind Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero, two behind Mohamed Salah.
Nor is his lack of recent production just the fault of Lukaku. As Mourinho alluded, service from creative players is important and it hasn’t been sufficient. Henrikh Mkhitaryan leads the team with five assists but has not set up a goal since August. The top three providers in the league all play for Man City: David Silva has eight, while Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane have six each.
Mata has one goal and one assist from 10 league games; Jesse Lingard has started only once in domestic play, the 2-1 defeat at Huddersfield. Martial and Rashford, who both prefer to play in the same position, have been more creative and it was bold by Mourinho to start both in the same line-up since he has doubts about their consistency and experience.
And so, while there’s talent in the attack, there’s also imbalance. Mourinho hoped for other options: He wanted Ivan Perisic from Inter, but United felt the Italian club were trying to hold them to ransom. Andreas Pereira wanted to play and, after not making Mourinho’s squad for the first three games of the season, decided to join Valencia on loan. United do have an option to bring him back in January.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic offers another option, but like Lukaku, he is a No. 9. At least his return comes at the right time; the Newcastle game was the first of 11 in the league before the visit to Everton on New Year’s Day. Add to that schedule two matches in the Champions League and one in the Carabao Cup matches.
Though difficult, there’s also a chance to recruit in the January transfer window. Mourinho has long admired Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil, who is able to negotiate with other clubs from January given his contract is up in June.
In the meantime, improvement can start with more from existing attacking players. That can start at Watford, the only club other than Chelsea to score more than two in one game against Mourinho’s United.