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.
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