The excitement and anticipation of seeing Alexis Sanchez start in a thrilling Manchester United forward line lasted all of 10.48 seconds on Wednesday night. Jose Mourinho would later pinpoint the four errors his team made in that short period of time which set them up for a chastening defeat to Tottenham, but that was just the start of United’s defensive rap sheet on a night to forget.
With Alexis lining up alongside Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba and the in-form Jesse Lingard in the attacking half of the field, this was meant to be a night they showed what a threat they can be to opposition defences. Instead it was a demonstration of all the issues United have when they don’t have possession.
Their failings were irrefutably exacerbated by Pogba’s worst showing in a United shirt as he went missing for the majority of the game and was subsequently hauled off just after the hour mark, but the rest of their more glaring problems were old news.
Phil Jones made errors for both Spurs goals, and while he has developed quite a reputation for diving in front of lost causes at every opportunity, he has forever been prone to fundamental errors too. In many ways the former Blackburn man is the personification of the chasm between a good defender and a great one. Good centre-backs can throw themselves in the way of the ball, but great defenders have a knack for ensuring such an action is rarely required thanks to an innate ability to read a game.
His partnership with Chris Smalling has been a source of some concern for many United fans in recent years, with both England internationals looking occasionally accomplished but regularly fallible all the same. Smalling’s form has fallen off a cliff since a hugely impressive 2015, and the second he is exposed by runners from the opposition midfield he looks panicky and uneasy.
And that is where United’s problems appear to lie as they prepare for the visit of Huddersfield Town on Saturday. Perhaps David Wagner’s side will not be able to replicate Spurs’ performance by sending attackers into the space between United’s defensive lines, but Mourinho needs to come up with answers sooner rather than later. He particularly needs to address the issues before Chelsea come to town in United’s next home fixture on February 25.
Against opposition who have fancied their chances on the ball, United have looked vulnerable. Their poor record against teams in the top six is not down to Mourinho supposedly parking the bus, but rather down to their inability to convincingly deal with threats to their back line.
Tottenham might only have scored twice on Wednesday but they could have had far more, while Chelsea grabbed the winning goal at Stamford Bridge almost as soon as they launched a concerted period of pressure back in November. Add in the fact Arsenal were allowed to send 33 shots towards David de Gea’s goal in December and there is clearly an inherent problem for United. If anything, they need to be better at ‘parking the bus’.
Nemanja Matic’s form has been a concern in recent months following his lightning start to life at Manchester United, and with Pogba having been pushed up to provide more support to the attacking quartet in recent weeks the Serbian has only been further exposed.
Ander Herrera’s downturn has also hit United hard, robbing Mourinho of the chance to add an extra man of dynamism and substance in midfield in the long-term absence of Michael Carrick. The club skipper may be back to full fitness now, but adding another immobile holding player alongside Matic is unlikely to be the true solution the manager is looking for.
Personnel changes could solve the odd issue. Replacing Ashley Young with Luke Shaw might have an effect, while Marcos Rojo or Victor Lindelof may have better luck than Jones or Smalling. But fundamentally, Mourinho needs to rethink his shape and approach for bigger games.
With a sparkling front line into which Mourinho is struggling to fit the likes of Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata these days, it is tempting to keep sending your side out with as many attacking threats as you can for matches of all descriptions. And, in truth, the arrival of Alexis has only made them even more top-heavy. But such an approach has been harming rather than helping United in the bigger games this term, and the consequences of such a top-heavy line-up need to be considered long and hard from here on in.Their title challenge for this season may already be over, but the task of getting this Manchester United squad prepared for another tilt next term rests on them being able to find a balance between their star-studded attack and their ailing defence.