It’s not quite rotten, but it’s not exactly fresh either. This is the current state of Manchester United’s play in the absence of Paul Pogba. It shouldn’t be this way. You see, Pogba has to be recognised as one of the very best in his position, but a team is comprised of 11 and a squad, of 25. United’s standing in the world of football is not up for debate. Their spending power is matched by only a select few. For this reason and the demonstration of that power, with £140.4m, £166.5m and £148.0m (summer window only) spent in the last three seasons, including the current one, United are still inexplicably unbalanced and too reliant on one or two players for creative thrust. Whereas the game’s current elite squads can call up on a multitude of top to world class creators, United can only boast one. It’s even more disconcerting when that one is a central midfielder. Manchester City, looking odds on favourites in the still early race to the title, have more than half dozen who can do that job more effectively than Henrikh Mkhitaryan at the moment.
That is a serious problem. It is serious.
While manager Jose Mourinho is one who strongly leans to pragmatism and function over style, this lack of creative talent is a continuation of the pattern that emerged in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final years in charge where it was mostly Wayne Rooney or die, to the disaster reign of David Moyes, and the crossing chronicles to Louis van Gaal and his preposterous passing without purpose. For a myriad of reasons, United has struggled for goals more and more ever since Sir Alex hung up his watch and never pointed to it again. It is not that the personnel haven’t been at the club, it is that the tactics and the players themselves have not lived up to their billing and it’s a shame. Shinji Kagawa, who many touted and willed themselves to believe was the better buy between him and Eden Hazard, was flimsy and already falling from the mere suggestion that he may be tackled. He never fit in and was kept out by a combination of anonymous displays and the manager’s inability to find a settled spot in the 11 for him.
Slipped a Mickey
Now, in that sense, Henrikh Mkhitaryan evokes unpleasant memories of Kagawa. He came highly recommended on the back of two good seasons sandwiched by a not so good one at Borussia Dortmund. On the back of that, he was entrusted with the task of being the primary creative force for the Red Devils. Continuing the trend of on-off inconsistent returns, Mkhitaryan was again anonymous in his first season at Old Trafford, taking what felt like an eternity to even establish himself in a team devoid of elite attacking talent.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is not getting on the ball as much as he needs to be. Appalling amount of touches.
Against Liverpool: 44 (Coutinho 68)
Against Tottenham: 49 (Eriksen 88)
Against Chelsea: 28 (Hazard 72)
— Liam Canning (@LiamPaulCanning) November 9, 2017
After a flying start to this season, many thought they’d now see the Mkhitaryan that put up 10 and 15 (in the league) in his final season at Dortmund. Fourteen (14) of the 24 chances he’s created this season came in the first three matches. The other 10 have come in six.
Mkhitaryan’s strength is playing a high tempo game where he has other skillful players that allow him the space to weave through defenses at pace. Pogba provided that. The form of Martial, and to a lesser extent, Rashford, provided that. Defenders had to pay special attention to them and this took the pressure of having tight markers away from the Armenian. That’s not his strength. Kagawa, anyone? Pogba commanded such respect that Mkhitaryan found himself in hectacres of space with the freedom of the middle of the park to glide through. Pogba’s injury has put the party on pause.
But while United has faced stronger opponents since his injury, it doesn’t explain cowardly tactics to snatch a point against a suspect Liverpool defense and an attack that was missing Sadio Mane. This was borderline unforgivable. Condensing the game and ceding so much possession put Mkhi on the periphery. He has watched games pass him by and again evoking eerie memories of Kagawa’s time with the Red Devils, he’s been hooked at around 60 minutes. Why has he played on then from the start? This is as much a sign of the lack of faith in Juan Mata as anything else.
Since hard workers such as Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, and Jesse Lingard have featured prominently, it is incumbent on players like Mata and Mkhitaryan to carry the mantle of creator. That Mata’s role on the team is a place on the right where he’s really a crossbreed of attacking and right central midfield distributor (to the right back mainly) is sad. It’s a combination of how the manager sees him, his lack of pace, and perhaps his own passive and friendly disposition that has Lingard starting ahead of him as the team’s number 10. That again is a problem.
When is Pogback?
For United, Pogba’s return cannot be soon enough. All is not lost as a few injuries, a loss of form of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, and the return of Pogba driving renewed energy into United can shake things up again in their favour.
The summer and maybe even January transfer windows must be spent on getting some top quality creative talent into the team. On his day, Mkhitaryan is still a difficult proposition, but it requires others around him who can allow him to play. Until then, Romelu Lukaku might as well consign himself to the fact that he’ll only get a single chance a game, if that many, and if he fails to convert the wolves will be out howling. His own performance has suffered mightily, his confidence, his composure, and his swagger. Lukaku is, however, a sniper being armed with spent shells and told to take the kill shot.
The fans are rightly annoyed at both the tactics of a manager who has placed himself into a shell that fears failure, fears invention, and fears what happened in his final season at Chelsea so much that it inhibits his undeniable talent of carving his team’s names on domestic league trophies. Most of the players are to blame, but as it was under the previous two managers they are not being given the playbook that inspires great performances. That is a problem. It’s foul.