Manchester United head to Southampton on Saturday knowing that anything other than a comfortable win will not be enough to ease the pressure that has surrounded the team.
Jose Mourinho’s side laboured to a 1-0 win over Young Boys in the Champions League on Tuesday and could only manage a 0-0 draw at home to Crystal Palace in their previous Premier League outing, which left them 14 points off top spot and seven off the top four.
Here’s a look at the talking points ahead of Saturday’s fixture.
IS LUKAKU FIRST-CHOICE AGAIN?
Marcus Rashford put in a performance full of intensity and effort in United’s Champions League win – but not one of high quality. The young Englishman made poor decisions on the ball, over-hit a pass when he had team-mates in dangerous positions to pick out, and of course, missed an easy chance to score, cueing the hand-wringing over Mourinho’s visible frustration.
In short, while Rashford responded to any doubts there were over his mentality and character, he failed to silence any criticism of his actual play. This was the fourth-straight game in which he’d missed a golden opportunity to score. While his winner against Bournemouth earned him some equity with his manager and the fans, the truth is that his form as a central striker has been scratchy.
The problem for Mourinho is that the same can be said of his lead striker. Romelu Lukaku hasn’t scored in his last seven appearances for club and country, while his United drought now stands at 12 games.
He registered his first Champions League assist on Tuesday off the bench, but even then, it’s hard to understand what he’d done to earn a recall to the starting XI last week. But Rashford’s form may give him an opening to justify his manager’s faith.
MOURINHO’S MIDFIELD LOYALTY NEEDS TO BE CHALLENGED
When will Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini’s status as undroppables be challenged?
Fellaini did score the winner on Tuesday night, and his habit of popping up with crucial goals highlights his importance. But the drawback of playing Fellaini as a defensive shield is that it negates his best way of being useful.
Too often on Tuesday, when United were attacking he was sitting deep, by design, which meant crosses were aimed at Rashford, Anthony Martial, or Jesse Lingard, rather than Fellaini.
Even more confounding is Matic’s continued presence in Mourinho’s first-choice XI. The Serbian has been out of form all season, possibly due to his preparations being curtailed by a surgery during the preseason. At the moment, he’s being beaten too easily in defence and not contributing enough to United’s attack.
In Fred, Andreas Pereira, and Ander Herrera, and of course Paul Pogba, United have midfielders who can better execute the manager’s gameplan.
Fred was the team’s best player on Tuesday until being substituted, and is easily the best-suited to picking the lock of a stubborn defence. And though Pogba is guilty of poor performances more often than one would like from a player of his stature, he’s still United’s best outfield player, period.
Meanwhile, Pereira and Herrera – who admittedly had a poor game in his last start, United’s loss to Man City – can help move the ball quickly rather than putting in the plodding displays that come from the Fellaini-Matic axis.
END OF THE ROAD FOR HUGHES?
While Mourinho may be an embattled manager at the moment, his position is certainly far more secure than that of his opposite number this weekend.
Much like with the United manager, many are wondering how much longer Mark Hughes will survive. Southampton have picked up just eight points from 13 games this season, as the days where they were comfortably avoiding relegation dogfights are long behind them.
Hughes has only managed six wins in 26 games since taking over in March, doing just enough at the end of last season to help Saints avoid the drop but looking incapable of turning around the team’s form this season.
All season long the Welshman has been bemoaning luck and refereeing decisions and other external forces, effectively blaming everyone but himself for Southampton’s current malaise.
He’s issued a rallying cry ahead of this match, though even with United in indifferent form the task is a tall one for Southampton. United may have a leaky defence, but expecting a team that’s scored 10 goals in 13 games to take advantage is optimism indeed.
Those calling for Mourinho’s sacking won’t get their wish, but there may indeed be a manager losing his job this weekend.
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