Jose Mourinho must be confused. His team are second in the Premier League, still in the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League, and they have just acquired a player their local rivals desired above all others. What’s not to like? Sure, there’s been one loss away to Newcastle United, but their manager is no tactical slouch. What’s the problem?
Of course, this is a deliberately reductive view of events. Because, impressive as United’s league position is — even if some recent performances have made it seem like a trick of the light — there are still substantial concerns. United continually look as if they are an injury away from a protracted slump in form. Mourinho might look at Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s very poor performance against Tottenham Hotspur as vindication for his sale to Arsenal, but there were many in Germany who predicted that the Armenian — for whom it is still very early days at the Emirates — would not remotely enjoy working under Mourinho.
For a team on which so much money has been spent, United look curiously threadbare in central midfield, where Nemanja Matic looks to be overworked. Matic is one of the most important members of the team and yet does not have a natural deputy. Ander Herrera has done well to convert his game to a more defensive role, but when he plays as deep as Matic, his passing, which has a shorter range than that of Matic, becomes far more conservative. This, in turn, inhibits the attacking freedom of Paul Pogba.
The case of Pogba is particularly interesting. It’s ironic that Mourinho tried for so long to sign Steven Gerrard, and now that he has a player with very similar characteristics, he is not giving him the best conditions in which to thrive. There are few situations in which a match-fit Pogba should be dropped or substituted, and the fact that Pogba has experienced both of late is cause for a little concern.
Without wishing to be alarmist, it’s worth noting that, in Mino Raiola, Pogba’s agent, Mourinho has a potential opponent who is not remotely afraid of him. The footballing landscape is also very different to how it was just two seasons ago when Pogba returned to United. Now clubs like Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain are far more comfortable spending sums upward of £100 million on players. That situation, enabled in no small part by Pogba’s own groundbreaking transfer, means that Raiola does not need to feel as beholden to United as he might have done even a few months ago. It’s just one more awkward dynamic that has entered the discussion.
Talking of awkwardness — to say nothing of Chris Smalling’s recent and extreme discomfort in defence — there is a brewing tactical problem on United’s left flank, where both Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial prefer to play as inside forwards. Martial’s recent showings have already suggested that he is vastly less effective on the right, and there is also the recurring problem of who will supply crosses to Romelu Lukaku.
It’s very easy to be unduly worried or reassured by a couple of performances, but stepping back from the current situation it does seem as though United are struggling to find an extra gear. What must be galling for Mourinho is that he now has his kind of players at the club — that is to say, those who have passed his famously exacting tests of mental resilience — and yet the Portuguese machine is not firing as it once did. It’s confusing for him — and, one suspects, for several more of his supporters and paymasters as well.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.