On December 2, Manchester United came away from Arsenal with a 3-1 victory which suggested their season might be just getting started. But, only four weeks on, they find themselves lost in a no-man’s land, with Romelu Lukaku’s head injury in the 0-0 draw against Southampton creating yet another problem for a team rapidly losing their way.
An embarrassing League Cup exit to Bristol City followed by successive 2-2 draws against Leicester City and Burnley had made the visit of Mauricio Pellegrino’s side a must-win for the sake of the players’ confidence and the supporters’ belief that something – anything – can be rescued from this campaign.
Lukaku had headed over an early chance from six yards out after Juan Mata’s cross from the right and appeared set for an evening of heavy involvement against a slapdash Saints backline. However, Wesley Hoedt’s clumsy late header into the back of Lukaku’s head ended the United striker’s participation in the eighth minute.
The Belgian barely moved as he was carefully dealt with by the United medical team but was thankfully seen speaking to the physios before eventually being stretchered from the field with an oxygen mask over his face following a full six minutes of treatment.
With no Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 18-man squad after his no-show of a performance against Burnley on Boxing Day, it was left to substitute Marcus Rashford to lead the line for once. However, while the young England striker showed plenty of endeavour in the Southampton half, he all too often failed to get a shot away when the chance presented itself. He has failed to score in six appearances but displayed the confidence of a player who hasn’t found the net in 66.
In all likelihood, Rashford will be asked to pull further weight in that spot in the weeks to come given that Ibrahimovic has looked a long way off even half-fitness since returning from a career-threatening ACL injury in November. Anthony Martial has also played the role in times gone by, but – like Rashford – he has excelled more as a wide attacker than a centre-forward under Jose Mourinho.
The quandary as to what happens in the forward line during Lukaku’s inevitable lay-off is just one of a number of issues Mourinho has to face up to in the coming days.
He takes his side to Everton in less than 48 hours knowing that more dropped points could see them suddenly slipping ever nearer to a fight for Champions League football when just a few weeks ago they appeared nailed on for second spot behind neighbours City.
Mourinho may be shorn of Ashley Young’s services for a short period too if the FA believe there’s a case to answer in relation to the England full-back’s cowardly elbow into the mid-section of Dusan Tadic when defending a second-half corner.
Throw in Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s evening-long exhibition of ‘Misplace the Cross’ and Paul Pogba’s ineffectual performance, complete with offside goal when Nemanja Matic’s original effort might have gone in anyway, and there was a general feeling of inevitability about the result long before the final whistle. This was 2016-17 all over again.
United are now outside the top two positions for the first time all season and a Manchester City win at Crystal Palace on Sunday will send them 17 points clear of the Reds at the turn of the year. Even considering the fact they have collected three Premier League wins this month, it has been a black December for Manchester United. And, given all the imponderables facing Mourinho, his January may not be too much better either.