In the space of two games, Manchester United have gone from level on points at the top of the Premier League table, behind Manchester City only on goal difference, to five points off the top with Tottenham breathing down their necks.
United’s displays in the two games since the international break have been alarming. Jose Mourinho set out his side to be unnecessarily defensive against Liverpool to earn a 0-0 draw, and then saw two defensive errors cost his side all three points against Huddersfield on Saturday.
It’s still only October, with plenty of twists and turns left in the season, but United need to arrest their mini-slide quickly: their next two league games are against Tottenham and Chelsea.
Here’s a look at three issues at the root of their slump.
GOALS, SHOTS DRYING UP
Before the latest international break, United were second in the Premier League goals scored chart with 21 goals, only one behind City. Two games later, while they’re still second, United are now ten goals behind their neighbours, having managed just one goal in their last two league games. Add to that their narrow 1-0 win away to Benfica in the Champions League, and United have scored just twice in three games since the international break, one of which was down to an inexplicable goalkeeping error. Put simply, the attack is misfiring.
The basic statistics don’t make for good reading. In their first seven games, United averaged three goals, 17.3 shots, and 6.6 shots on target. Over the last two, they’ve had 15 shots in total, with only four of which have been on target. Is it really a surprise that they’ve only scored one goal?
Romelu Lukaku was the league’s leading scorer at the international break, but hasn’t scored since the Premier League resumed. Henrikh Mkhitaryan doesn’t have a single assist. Neither does Anthony Martial. Only Marcus Rashford has remained consistent, having scored both of United’s goals since the break (one in the Champions League).
For United to get back on track, their attackers need to discover their early-season form.
United’s biggest issue may be one that is out of their control. At the moment, they have only two senior midfielders fit to play. Marouane Fellaini, who had been in such excellent form, got injured on international duty for Belgium, and his absence has been telling, as it’s left Mourinho with only Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic to play in the centre of the park.
Herrera hasn’t discovered the form of last year, which is perhaps understandable since he hadn’t gotten a run in the side this season before these two games. His partnership with Matic has looked uninventive so far, and unable to impose itself on a game. Herrera will likely grow into the season with more game time – but do United have time for that?
Thankfully, Fellaini should be back for the Spurs game, and Paul Pogba could return for Chelsea. Those two have the power to lift United out of their current malaise.
The injuries aren’t restricted to midfield. Phil Jones picked up a knock against Huddersfield and Eric Bailly got injured on international duty, which means Mourinho is without his first-choice centre-back pairing. It showed on Saturday as Victor Lindelof came on to replace Jones, and promptly gave away a goal with a shocking error.
UNITED GETTING SLOPPY
The two goals United conceded against Huddersfield were both down to individual errors. Juan Mata gave the ball away uncharacteristically for the first, and Lindelof failed to deal with a goalkeeper’s long ball for the second. Both were basic mistakes that could have been avoided, and it’s fair to say they cost United all three points.
But the rot had set in the previous game. United’s draw at Anfield may have been a defensive masterclass, but they were sloppy in possession against Liverpool nonetheless. The 74% pass accuracy was the lowest of the season for United in the league, and it showed as Mourinho’s side invited pressure upon themselves time and again by giving the ball away cheaply.
Even the one clear-cut chance Liverpool had was down to United’s failure to deal with a second ball after clearing a corner. David de Gea came to the rescue then, but the error should have sent alarm bells ringing.
Tottenham and Chelsea are both sides that will punish any mistake. United need to get their act together defensively and in possession to avoid slipping up against either side.
In this column, we track the best Arab football talents plying their trade in the Premier League and round-up their accomplishments every week.
Liverpool star Mohamed Salah is never far from the headlines after a series of devastating displays for the Reds, and he features this week despite Jurgen Klopp side’s 4-1 defeat to Tottenham.
Meanwhile, Riyad Mahrez provided an assist in Leicester’s 2-1 win away to Swansea and Sofiane Boufal scored a stunning goal in Southampton’s 1-0 win over West Brom.
Here’s a look at how these Arab footballers fared this weekend.
Liverpool’s best player on a humiliating day for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Scored against the run of play early in the first-half to give the visitors a fighting chance, only for Spurs to add two more to storm to a convincing win.
The Egyptian came close to adding a second after the restart only for Hugo Lloris to deny him from close range.
Minutes – 90
Goal – 1
Shots – 3
Shots on target – 3
Key Passes – 2
Passing Accuracy – 75%
Touches – 59
Passes – 28
Despite only entering the action after 80 minutes, the Moroccan scored a sensational goal to lead the Saints to a home win over West Brom.
Stealing possession in his own half, Boufal cut through the heart of the Baggies defence before unleashing a powerful shot from outside the box.
Aside from his match-winning strike, he boasted more successful dribbles than any other Saints player with just 10 minutes on the pitch.
Minutes – 10
Goal – 1
Shots – 1
Shots on target – 1
Key Passes – 1
Passing Accuracy – 100%
Touches – 19
Passes – 10
The Algerian looks to have rediscovered his ruthless form in recent weeks, and built on recent solid performances to set up both goals in Leicester’s win over Swansea.
The Foxes created all the chances early on and took the lead when Federico Fernandez headed the ball into his own net after Mahrez’s cleverly-weighted cross in the 25th minute.
The visitors doubled their advantage after the break when Mahrez released Shinji Okazaki to slot the ball home from close range.
Apart from his two vital contributions, the 26-year-old showed pace, purpose and some neat trickery to trouble the Swans defence.
Minutes – 86
Assists – 1
Shots – 1
Shots on target – 0
Key Passes – 2
Passing Accuracy – 86.2%
Touches – 52
Passes – 29
A wretched run of results culminating in the 5-2 home defeat to Arsenal was the final nail in Ronald Koeman‘s coffin, but it was so much more than poor relegation form that cost the Dutchman his job.
The failure to replace Romelu Lukaku in the summer – the striker who had more or less carried Everton with his sheer weight of goals for three seasons – was in a nutshell inexcusable, given he admitted in April he didn’t want to stay at Goodison.
While the Toffees recouped £80m from Manchester United for the Belgian, the Blues had that and an extra £70m to lavish on talent in the off-season. Recruitment was key.
Quite how much say Director of Football Steve Walsh, the guru behind Leicester’s signing of N’Golo Kante among others that helped them secure Premier League title success two years ago, had on incomings is a bit unknown. He would of course have made suggestions but at the end of the day Koeman’s £150m summer outlay was on the players he wanted.
The heralded return of Wayne Rooney cannot be faulted as a bad move – the boyhood blue has five goals to his name and has been the only leader on the pitch Everton have truly had this season.
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, Everton’s standout performer – that in itself tells the story – has been the best of the incomings with Michael Keane being committed if not spectacular.
But the likes of record buy Gylfi Sigurdsson for £45m, the expensive purchase of Davy Klaassen and Spanish misfit Sandro have all struggled with Koeman opting to buy creativity and neglect quality acquisitions and back-up in valuable full-back positions, as well as pace on the wings and something a bit different than ball-to-feet number 10s.
Everton’s spending may have been somewhat relative in the over-inflated transfer market but it doesn’t hide from the fact Koeman made a catalogue of errors.
The 54-year-old chopped and changed his system regularly as well as personnel – having generally no idea what his Everton should look like. Excuses made about the team’s difficult fixture list and long-term injuries only added weight to the argument to sack him.
— Everton (@Everton) October 23, 2017
The Everton board, who usually aren’t quick to fire managers, were left with no choice but to end his 16-month tenure at Goodison, especially with the club’s fanbase growing restless and being very much against the ex-Southampton boss.
Koeman had a solid if not spectacular first season in charge – guiding the club to seventh place – but in black and white he failed to improve players in the squad (aside from Dominic Calvert-Lewin) and his stubborn managerial techniques didn’t seem to sit well for many.
The Barcelona playing legend is actually limited as a manager beyond trying to make his teams play on the front-foot in an organised pressing style – but he failed to implement that consistently and effectively.
The added extra of Europa League football seemed to be viewed as an unnecessary evil by Koeman from the outset, while he fell out with stars like boyhood blue Ross Barkley, which created huge headlines, along with Kevin Mirallas.
He was also reluctant to shift so-called favourites like Morgan Schneiderlin – a case of a player, like others, who went backwards under his management.
It’s hard to picture Barcelona coming calling for his services in the future now.
For all the hype of a top four challenge, attractive football and Everton becoming the new Man City – the start to this season has set the blues back a long way. In a sense, it’s another episode in many false dawns for the Grand Old Lady.
So who should replace him?
If David Moyes’ current stock, and for that matter reputation, had risen or stayed at around the same level as when he left in 2013, then a return for the Scot could have been a genuine option. Indeed, there would have been plenty of clamour for it in some quarters but not now – especially following his ill-fated spell at Sunderland last season where he seemed out of touch with the modern game.
The likes of Sean Dyche and Marco Silva are names in the mix because they have been working wonders at their respective clubs – but don’t expect either to make the switch to Merseyside mid-season. Why would they? Long before Koeman took the reigns, Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe, a boyhood Evertonian, was an option but again it seems unlikely he would bail on his own relegation battle with the Cherries.
Italian Carlo Ancelotti and former Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel would be attractive alternatives – at least for fans – but it’s hard to see either of them taking up the hotseat, with the German the more likely especially if promised funds. The shortlist is few and far between.
That means, for me, fans’ favourite and Under-23 manager David Unsworth has to be given the top job by chairman Bill Kenwright and majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri.
The 1995 FA Cup winning left-back was placed in caretaker charge on the final day of the 2015-16 campaign along with club legend Joe Royle following Roberto Martinez’s departure, and expect the Everton hierarchy to turn to the man nicknamed Rhino once again.
This time though, it should be a permanent position for Unsworth, who won the Under-23 championship last season and has been responsible for developing and nurturing top young talent like Tom Davies.
Yes, he doesn’t boast Premier League managerial experience and maybe isn’t part of Moshiri’s long-term project to make the club compete with the elite in England, but the fans will immediately get behind him, regardless of that. They see Unsworth as one of them and Everton need to go back to square one.
Evertonians are simple in the fact they support their team through thick and thin, but at the end of the day, just want to see commitment, work-rate, passion and desire for the blue shirt. The team weren’t showing those attributes under Koeman, nor did he ever connect with the values of the club. In essence, he never knew what it meant to be blue.
You don’t have to be the most gifted player in the world but if you give it your all, then they are happy. Take former club stalwart Tony Hibbert as a prime example of that.
Unsworth could muster an instant reaction that is needed and turn around the fortunes at Goodison – much like Royle did during the 1994-95 campaign when Everton were again staring down the barrel at relegation but ended up staying up and winning the FA Cup.
Everton supporters like to have one of their own in the dugout and Unsworth would be the populist choice, with Duncan Ferguson as his assistant.