Manchester United have recovered well from consecutive defeats to Brighton and Tottenham Hotspur, claiming back-to-back away wins at Burnley and Watford.
Jose Mourinho’s team created chances and took them in quick-fire first half spells which then preceded a more defensive second period.
Romelu Lukaku scored both against Burnley. He scored again at Vicarage Road before Chris Smalling popped up to score his second.
The identity of those goal-scorers, coupled with United’s failure to kill the game, got me thinking. One statistic emerged from the win over Watford which, while quite funny in a way, will be a major concern to Mourinho, and it is this: Smalling, big Mike Smalling, has the same number of goals in 2018 (4) than Anthony Martial and Alexis Sanchez put together.
United have scored eight goals in five games this season. Their goalscorers: Lukaku, Smalling, Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw.
The question I am getting to is this: why is Lukaku the only attacking player scoring goals, and why are players like Sanchez, Martial, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford not even getting chances – let alone on the scoresheet – from out wide?
As you might have guessed, the crux of this issue lies in Mourinho’s tactical approach, or lack of one.
United’s build-up play is generally slow, or least nowhere near as quick as that of other teams. Just like they did with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lukaku is now used as the reference point in attack, holding the ball to start attacks and then finishing them. That much was seen against Burnley, where United attacked down the left and then used the Belgian as a conduit to get into the box.
In other words, the emphasis firmly lies with the big man up top to string together attacks under Mourinho. The Portuguese has always used tough, physical forwards to add definition up front. United’s poor performance in the FA Cup final, which saw Marcus Rashford start at No.9, serves as further proof of this notion.
Alternatively, United have become something of a set-piece team: two of their goals this season have been penalties and four have come from crosses. This does not provide much scope for smaller players like Sanchez, Mata or Lingard to profit.
This cannot continue. At Manchester City, players from all over the pitch chip in. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah routinely share the goals at Liverpool. Chelsea, under Maurizio Sarri, are creating superb chances in the final third, with Olivier Giroud hardly the main man like Lukaku is at Old Trafford.
Mourinho has to find a way to get other attacking players into goalscoring positions. The first way to do this is move the ball faster, which sounds simple but isn’t: perhaps moving to a three at the back formation with emphasis on building through the middle would work, giving players like Sanchez and Lingard more momentum driving forward, as opposed to gingerly passing it sideways on the edge of the box.
More simply, Mourinho needs to encourage players to run beyond Lukaku in attack. United are a notably more dangerous team when they are able to stretch opponents, mainly because Paul Pogba can pick out almost any long ball.
United have recovered well, yes. But they are nowhere near to realising their full attacking potential.