Jose Mourinho admitted early in the 2018-19 campaign that he was not sure of his best side as Manchester United were left to deal with the late return of many of their World Cup stars.
But even now that the season is well into its stride there remain question marks over exactly who the Portuguese regards as his favoured starting forwards. Save for the constant presence of Romelu Lukaku at the centre of attack there have been few certainties about United’s offensive line-up of late.
With Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial well used to having to share playing time, Alexis Sanchez has now found himself also fighting for a place following his underwhelming start to the season. There also remains a scrap for starts between Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata.
As United prepare for a huge week ahead, starting with the trip to Chelsea ahead of a daunting fixture against Juventus in the Champions League on Tuesday, Mourinho needs to start to get a tune out of his forwards if he is to address his side’s poor start to the campaign.
Below Goal takes a look at how each of United’s senior forwards have fared to this point...
|5 (+1 as sub)||2||2||1||0||1||0% (0 goals/10 shots)|
The England attacker has been struggling with a muscle injury since the World Cup and has not played for United since teeing up Juan Mata’s opener against Derby in September. He’s now back available for selection but will need to prove that he is back to 100 per cent fitness following his laboured start to the campaign.
Since playing the full 90 minutes in the 3-0 loss to Tottenham, Lingard has failed to complete a full game. His starts against Burnley, Watford, Wolves and Derby were all brought to an early close as he found it difficult to last the pace due to his continued injury concern.
|Games played||Wins||Draws||Losses||Goals||Assists||Strike rate|
|10 (+1 as sub)||4||3||3||4||0||14.3% (4 goals/28 shots)|
There are many United fans and pundits, including Paul Scholes , who continue to harbour serious concerns as to Lukaku’s suitability leading the line for the Red Devils, and his current six-game scoreless streak is adding a level of credence to their argument.
The Belgian scored important goals in the vital away wins at Burnley and Watford but even then there were glorious opportunities that he failed to convert, and since his scoring touch has deserted him those chances missed are weighing even heavier. Whilst his work in the channels has improved since arriving at Old Trafford he must continue to get better outside the area if he is to win over the doubters.
|5 (+3 as sub)||2||1||2||2||0||22.2% (2 shots/9 goals)|
Before netting against Young Boys in September it had been eight months since Martial had last found the mark for United, and his equaliser last time out against Newcastle has helped to solidify his place in Jose Mourinho’s thinking after a trying summer.
Having already lost his place to Alexis Sanchez, Martial’s days at Old Trafford appeared numbered after he was fined for leaving the US tour to be at the birth of his second child with Mourinho ready to sanction his sale. But he has started four of United’s last six games and scored twice, making him arguably the club’s form attacker right now.
|3 (+4 as sub)||1||1||1||2||1||25% (2 goals/8 shots)|
Even taking into account his lack of minutes under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea ahead of his 2014 move to United, Mata has rarely experienced a run in which he has played as sparingly as he has at the start of this season.
Having started the opening two fixtures in the absence of many World Cup players, the Spaniard was quickly demoted in the aftermath of the 3-2 loss to Brighton and his only start since was in the League Cup loss to Derby. Despite opening the scoring that night he missed another great opportunity, but he made a significant impact after coming on as an early substitute against Newcastle by netting the game-changing free-kick.
|4 (+3 as sub)||3||1||0||1||0||7.6% (1 goal/13 shots)|
Since the 2018-19 season got underway, Rashford has scored four goals and assisted another. Unfortunately for United fans, all but his consolation goal away to West Ham have come in England colours.
His form for his country has been in stark contrast to that in a red jersey, with Mourinho saying the 20-year-old looked “sad” before being hauled off against Newcastle with United 2-0 down. His lack of regular starts could have something to do with that, with Rashford last having started more than four successive games when compiling 15 straight under Louis van Gaal following his unforgettable debut against FC Midtjylland in Feburary 2016.
|5 (+2 as sub)||3||2||0||1||1||7.6% (1 goal/13 shots)|
The Chilean arrived with much pomp and circumstance in January but it is fair to say that United fans are still waiting for Sanchez to show even a glimpse of his best form. His last-minute winner against Newcastle was the exception that has proved the rule since he was swapped for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and even Mourinho has run out of patience with him of late resulting in the 29-year-old starting just two of the last six matches.
There is a school of thought that Sanchez’s style simply doesn’t fit United’s, and there has certainly been a disconnect of some sort in most of the former Arsenal man’s starts.
Whichever way you look at it, United need to be getting more out of their forward line right now. Lukaku is not scoring goals and is looking short of confidence outside of the six-yard box too, but there isn’t an obvious answer when it comes to alternative options elsewhere.
With Rashford so far looking a shadow of the player making the mark with England, and Alexis struggling to produce, Martial is now looking like United’s best bet despite his clear disaffection with the manager.
Lingard can’t come back to full fitness and form quick enough really, and in the meantime there may be cause to suggest Mata has earned the chance to play a more central role in Mourinho’s plans.
It is hard to offer a hard and fast ranking of United’s attackers so far this season, so indifferent has each player’s individual form been at times since the World Cup. Whereas Lukaku looked to be in decent fettle in September, his confidence and goals have dried up and it is now Martial who appears to be in the better form.
As things stand, it may be fair to suggest that a front three of Mata, Lukaku and Martial would be the form trio, with Lingard, Sanchez and Rashford needing to deliver more to earn regular roles.