What Man U must do to be in the title hunt according to the Guardians Jamie Jackson.
“The season’s first week proved bumpy for Manchester United. José Mourinho missed out on his desired centre-back. A message emerged that the club would not back the manager in the market on a carte blanche basis. He made Paul Pogba captain yet after a fine display against Leicester the midfielder said there would be a fine for saying certain things – again illuminating a difficult relationship with his manager.
Yet with the 2-1 win on Friday Mourinho has negotiated half of the Leicester-Brighton double he identified as difficult owing to the many key players not available because of post-World Cup breaks. It offers a glimmer of optimism following Mourinho’s pre-season gloom. And given the hierarchy’s view that, while it will be tough, United should be title contenders, what has to be done to turn this hope to reality?
Virtually everywhere Mourinho looks there are tensions he could do with easing. Chief here is the mutual disaffection between him and Pogba with the post-Leicester outburst possibly rooted in Mourinho’s lukewarm praise of his triumphant World Cup campaign. The Mourinho-Pogba contretemps are mirrored by those the former is enduring with Anthony Martial. The player wants to leave but, given the manager also missed out on a wide-forward in the window, pragmatism may mean differences should be buried. And while Mourinho and Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, are cordial, the disconnect over transfers illustrates all is not perfect between the club’s two most important men. An upturn in these relationships is required.
Incoming director of football
Given the scattergun recruitment since the supremely successful manager-chief executive axis of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill ended six years ago, the decision to create an extra layer of football expertise is timely. Although Mourinho (or any incumbent) may wonder if authority over transfers will wane, a correct appointment should actually prove a boost. If both manager and director of football (DOF) are on the same page regarding identification of targets, then the case to be presented jointly to Woodward for him to sign off the finance should be bolstered. The plan is for the DOF to be in place once the restructuring of staff and expansion of the AON Training Complex for the women’s team is complete. It could, then, occur in time for the winter window and be of benefit if United remain in the championship race and Mourinho wishes to strengthen for a second-half-of-the-season push.
Improve away form against direct competitors
United managed two victories from the five matches away from Old Trafford against the other top six sides. They drew 0-0 at Liverpool and lost 1-0 at Chelsea and 2-0 at Tottenham Hotspur but they beat Arsenal 3-1 and City 3-2. A yield of seven from 15 points while scoring only five times is not title-winning form though beating Pep Guardiola’s runaway victors proves the on-road record can be improved. United also suffered two surprise reverses on their travels, going down at Huddersfield Town (2-1) and Newcastle United (1-0) before the deflating reverse to West Brom at Old Trafford (1-0) that handed City the crown as early as 15 April.
Score more goals
A prevailing reason for the executive’s belief that United can challenge is the impressive defensive record under Mourinho and the high margin for improvement in goals for. In 2016-17 United registered 54 goals but conceded only 29. Last year the count was 68 and 28. Compare this with the 85 of the champions, Chelsea, two seasons ago and the 106 of their successors, City, with United’s goals conceded second best each year. The hierarchy’s view is Mourinho should be able to coax more from a six-strong group who number Romelu Lukaku, Martial, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Alexis Sánchez and Juan Mata. Lukaku well last year yet his 16 Premier League finishes were half as many as the Golden Boot winner, Mo Salah, and City had two men with more goals – Sergio Agüero (21) and Raheem Sterling (18). The Belgian needs support – no team-mate managed double figures – so the onus is on the other five each to register 10 or more times in the league. The onus, too, is on Mourinho to ensure they can achieve this. See final point …
Style of play
This has become the hoariest of chestnuts because it is so fundamental to United’s chances of challenging under Mourinho. Put simply he has to enable his creative players to express themselves, take more chances and swarm forward in more cut-throat style. There is difficulty recalling more than a handful of times this has happened under the manager and what is most baffling is how much better his team are when it does. The 3-2 derby win over City is a prime illustration of the frustrations many fans feel with Mourinho. United were 2-0 down at the interval and staring at allowing Guardiola’s side to become champions by beating them at the Etihad Stadium. Given zero choice, out came Mourinho’s men for the second half, Pogba scored twice quickly – on 53 and 55 minutes – before Chris Smalling’s late finish completed a memorable comeback win. This spirit of twist-or-bust has to be the template this year or United will not be contenders.