Manchester United defensive crisis deepens ahead of visit of all-out attacking Arsenal
Jose Mourinho waiting has fitness concerns over Bailly, Smalling and Young while Lindelof (injury) and Young (suspended) are definitely out
There is a case for arguing that Manchester United’s season has been one long defensive crisis. It is all the more remarkable as it is out of character. While some of Jose Mourinho’s distinctions are stripped from an increasingly beleaguered manager, he retains the record for fewest goals conceded in a top-flight season.
His Chelsea side were breached just 15 times in 2004/05. His United had let in more before October was over. If United against Arsenal was the Premier League’s defining rivalry for a decade, enemies are twinned in a different respect. Now they have the division’s joint fewest clean sheets, a mere two apiece. Yet that porousness has cost United rather more than a rejuvenated Arsenal.
But if United’s defensive difficulties have long felt Mourinho’s self-fulfilling prophecy, his summer complaints about their inability to sign a centre-back amounting to undermining the ones he already has, now he has different kinds of personnel problems.
A patched-up defence will face Arsenal and the Premier League’s top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. While United struggle in the more meaningful standings, they have surged to the top of the division’s injury table.
As Marcos Rojo has not played this season, Phil Jones was the only fully fit centre-back available for Saturday’s draw at Southampton. While United wait to see if Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling will be able to return, Victor Lindelof is out. They may have lost both full-backs, with Ashley Young definitely suspended and Luke Shaw an injury doubt. Diogo Dalot’s first Premier League start could come against a side unbeaten since August.
Arsenal are depleted themselves, with Granit Xhaka suspended, but with Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette pushing for starts after influential cameos in the uplifting win over Tottenham Hotspur, they are picking from a position of strength.
Mourinho, held by relegation strugglers, is not. “We are going to be in difficulties again to build the team,” said a manager who used midfielders Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay in a back three at St Mary’s. “We are again going to have to make adaptations and compensations to try to give some balance to the team.”
If it represents a test of Mourinho’s organisational and motivational prowess, two skills that often have seemed to have deserted him, there is also the question of what can be expected of United, regardless of absentees. Mourinho’s blame-avoidance strategy has been to suggest that his is an impossible task while ignoring inconvenient realities like his £400 million (Dh1.8 billion) spend in the transfer market or figures showing they have England’s biggest wage bill.
Less than two weeks ago, the Portuguese talked of being in the Uefa Champions League places when 2019 starts. After dropping four points against Crystal Palace and Southampton, he was quoted on Brazilian television suggesting it would be almost impossible to finish in the top four.
“I don’t know if I say or if I didn’t but if I used that word, it is not what I feel at all,” he said on Tuesday. “We need a good run of results, not waste points we shouldn’t waste. We just need to not be so unlucky with problems we have, we need some players to perform better than they are.”
United are eight points from the top four and have made up bigger deficits later on in the season to win titles under Alex Ferguson.
While Unai Emery’s Arsenal are playing fearless football that may take them higher than many anticipated, it is a sign of reduced expectation that Mourinho’s immediate target is to overhaul Everton.
“I don’t think Everton will be in front of Manchester United at the end of the season,” he said. “There are six teams that should stay in the first six positions, season after season.”
Such is the scale of United’s decline that voicing even such lowly aims could backfire. Yet Arsenal have a miserable record both at Old Trafford, where they have not taken three points since 2006, and against Mourinho. Arsene Wenger only beat a fierce foe twice in 19 meetings as Mourinho served as Arsenal’s nemesis, deposing their Invincibles as champions in 2005, rebranding them from title challengers to a side hanging on for top-four finishes and changing the dominant brand of football in England in the 2000s.
Wenger seemed the odd man out then. Yet with Emery espousing more fashionable philosophies like pressing and playing at pace, Mourinho now appears the anachronism. Such interpretations may irritate Mourinho – many things have – but the only way to change perceptions is to record the sort of wins he used to reel off against Arsenal with enviable ease.
Updated: December 5, 2018 08:06 AM