Man Utd fighting spirit cannot be questioned, but glaring attacking issues remain

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Jose Mourinho (c) has attacking issues to solve, despite two rousing wins.

No one can now question the fighting spirit engendered within the Manchester United ranks by manager Jose Mourinho after a week that featured two rousing comebacks.

From Jesse Lingard’s fine header in the 2-1 triumph against Chelsea to Nemanja Matic’s stupendous sliced half-volley during the latest remarkable 3-2 victory at Crystal Palace, the Red Devils have valiantly scrapped to avert crises in consecutive run-outs.

The sight of Belgium centre forward Romelu Lukaku roaring in unalloyed celebration and pounding the turf following both winners borne of high drama typify the attitude imbued within a squad now shaped by the ceaseless Special One.

After several seasons detailed by meek surrenders under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson wilderness, the change is a welcome one.

A comparison to the feckless performances put in by disintegrating Arsenal during this period details the different trajectories these – once bitter – rivals are on.

But beyond these memorable moments, a pressing issue remains. Especially with rampant Liverpool up next at Old Trafford for Saturday’s scrap for second place in the Premier League.

If United are to hold any realistic pretensions of keeping pace with champions-elect Manchester City next term, an attacking identity to match this warrior ethos must be found.

The other side of the coin when comebacks are required is: why were you in this losing position in the first place?

Both matches have followed a similar script. Losing starts caused by disjointed first halves have been salvaged by impressive retorts after the break.

For a team of United’s collective talent, assembled at a cost only dwarfed by their City neighbours, this should not be occurring with frequency.

We are approaching the two-year mark since Mourinho’s appointment. Yet it is impossible to pin down a style of play.

This is not an issue for Pep Guardiola’s Blue machine.

A revolutionary utilisation of two central playmakers, unyielding belief in ball rotation and burning desire to press for the ball high up the pitch has crafted a side on course to break numerous records: 2016/17 Chelsea’s 30 wins in a Premier League season, 2004/05 Chelsea’s record 95 points, 2009/10 Chelsea’s 103 goals, 1999/2000 United’s 18-point winning margin and 2004/05 Chelsea’s 15 away wins.

An imposing standard has been set. It is now up to Mourinho to cure the attacking ails which still bedevil his side.

Since the heady days of the autumn when United kept up with City’s points and goals tally, they’ve steadily turned into a trying watch.

These faults were glaring at Selhurst Park.

Romelu Lukaku of Manchester United celebrates scoring at Crystal Palace.

Romelu Lukaku of Manchester United celebrates scoring at Crystal Palace.

Superstar January addition Alexis Sanchez was dispossessed eight times as he moved into the clustered centre, or dropped deep from the left-wing position detailed on the team sheet’s 4-3-3 formation.

This movement restricted the space of Paul Pogba, with the pair regularly stumbling into the same space. In a repeat of the Chelsea win, the France centre midfielder’s performance mirrored his team’s – awful in the first half, better in the second.

His freedom has been stifled by both Sanchez’s arrival and the Chile forward’s current deployment. No assist has been registered by him in the top flight since January 15’s 3-0 rout of sorry Stoke.

United’s struggles to escape second gear were typified by the presence of secondary defensive midfielder Scott McTominay. A 91.3-per-cent pass accuracy is impressive on paper, but his lack of adventure with the ball increased the log jam.

Only when the adventurous Marcus Rashford was thrown on at half-time to provide required width did an upturn arrive. In the Premier League, the England youngster had not played since February 2 and not started since December 30 – with four successful dribbles in 45 minutes in south London, this situation must change for the good of the team.

Mourinho is renowned for diligently drilling his defence and applying a laissez-faire approach to his attack.

Since Sanchez’s recruitment in late January, several different line-ups have been selected. Chemistry has proved elusive.

For all the glory of Chelsea and Palace, misery at Tottenham and Newcastle should not be forgotten.

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Alexis Sanchez's ineffective display against Crystal Palace highlights learning curve at Man United

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Sanchez is yet to truly make an impact for his new club.

Alexis Sanchez is struggling to settle in at Manchester United, with his display against Crystal Palace on Monday night the latest in a collection of underwhelming performances since his January move from Arsenal.

Such difficulties can always happen with winter signings. Regardless of Sanchez’s Premier League experience, it takes time to settle into a new system, get used to new teammates, and establish an understanding with a new manager.

Yet there’s no doubt that the Chilean’s form is becoming a cause for concern. On Monday, he had only three touches in the Palace box, as he constantly dropped deep in an attempt to influence the game – a habit that is a cause for his struggles, and United’s.

Club legend and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville said it best after Monday’s game: “Alexis was poor tonight, there’s no doubt about that. He was trying to play one-twos from 40 yards from goal. He is no good from there.

“For me, I see Alexis Sanchez as being at his best in the left channel, attacking defenders, committing them, playing one-two combination. He has to try and get in those positions for Manchester United.”

As Neville points out, Sanchez’s most effective position is indeed on the left wing, but that is a position where Marcus Rashford and especially Anthony Martial thrive – United visibly improved against Palace once Rashford was brought on at halftime to play on that flank.

Neither one is as good as Sanchez in the position, but their effectiveness – and again, especially Martial’s – drops when they’re played on the right to accommodate the new recruit, whereas Sanchez is still a capable player on the right or even through the middle.

But while Jose Mourinho sorts out this positional headache, Sanchez has taken it upon himself to try to prove himself – thus leading to his propensity to drop deep as he tries to maximise his influence.

It hasn’t worked. Sanchez has two assists and one goal in eight United appearances across all competitions.

His key passes metric has dropped from three per 90 minutes in the league for Arsenal to 1.4 for his new team. Most tellingly, he is losing the ball far too often: 34 times on Monday, and 36 times in two separate recent fixtures, against Newcastle and Huddersfield. No other United player has lost possession so many times in a single game this season.

His dropping deep also reduces the impact Paul Pogba is able to have, as Sanchez ends up demanding the ball in positions Pogba would normally take up. Working out the kinks in the on-field relationship between those two is another challenge on Mourinho’s hands.

Sanchez’s versatility affords Mourinho plenty of options. He can push Sanchez further forward, as a nominal No10 but playing just off central striker Romelu Lukaku (and dropping deep as little as possible).

Keep him on the right flank and trust Martial and Rashford to maintain their standards on the left. Play him on the left and pick Juan Mata over Martial and Rashford on the right – the Spaniard is United’s best player on that flank, and his introduction on Monday was another key factor in the Red Devils’ comeback.

Mourinho could even try Sanchez as a central striker to give Lukaku some rest – some of Sanchez’s best displays for Arsenal came playing effectively as a false 9.

With Saturday’s north-west derby against Liverpool and next week’s crucial Champions League second-leg fixture against Sevilla coming up, the manager needs to quickly figure out how to get the best from his new signing.

*Quotes and lost possession stats taken from Sky Sports. All other stats taken from whoscored.com.

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Chris Smalling believes Man United are rediscovering the spirit of the Sir Alex Ferguson era

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No Small matter: Chris Smalling scores for United

Chris Smalling believes Manchester United’s recovery from two goals down in Monday’s 3-2 victory at Crystal Palace shows they are recovering the spirit of the Sir Alex Ferguson era.

Since the former United manager’s retirement in 2013, the team have often appeared to lack many of the traits they consistently demonstrated during his reign. Their refusal to accept defeat while the Scot was in charge inspired some of their highest-profile wins.

They have gradually improved since Jose Mourinho’s appointment in 2016, but while it remains to be seen whether the Portuguese can bring back the glory days they enjoyed under Ferguson, the response on Monday was perhaps the clearest indication of his ability to do so.

United trailed to goals from Andros Townsend and Patrick van Aanholt, the second of which came moments after Mourinho’s introduction of Marcus Rashford as a half-time substitute and the manager’s adoption of a more attacking shape. Smalling, Romelu Lukaku and then, in stoppage time, Nemanja Matic then each scored to secure an unlikely victory.

The three vital points took United back up to second in the Premier League.

Asked if the performance and spirit reminded him of playing under Ferguson, the 28-year-old Smalling said: “Yeah, it did. There’s not been many games where we’ve come back – granted, there’s not many games when we’ve gone 2-0 down – but you can see how close we are as a group that everyone celebrated together, and how much it means to us, because that was a huge win.

“Our intensity really increased and you could see probably four of (Palace’s) guys cramping up, and that gave us that edge where we thought we could go after them. Even when it was 2-2, where in some games you’d probably take that after being 2-0 down, we went after them. It was great.

“It shows that no matter how bad we might be playing in that first half, that we can go after teams. Doing it away from home – our home record’s a lot better than our away form – that’s a huge win.

“We walked in (at half-time) and already knew we weren’t playing enough, needed to increase it, and conceded so early as well (in the second half) with a sloppy goal. We had everything in front of us to do, and we did it.”

Defeat was regardless cruel on relegation-threatened Palace, who remain 18th and without a victory in six despite playing well.

Townsend had continued to impress after scoring the opening goal.

But after Palace’s second defeat in a row following a late goal – they previously conceded in the closing stages to Tottenham in a 1-0 reverse when also impressing – Townsend told the club’s official website: “Everyone is devastated.

“Twice in eight days we’ve thoroughly deserved at least a point, if not all three. We’ve been undone by a bit of quality right at the end.”

Provided by Press Association Sport

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