Jose Mourinho selected an unchanged side for Manchester United’s visit to Hull City, and reaped the consequences. Despite two wins out of two in their opening Premier League games, there are unresolved issues at the heart of his team’s attacking play.
Wayne Rooney is a No. 10 only according to his shirt number. Juan Mata remains under utilised and a poor fit out wide in a side that increasingly aspires to play a more direct brand of football. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is yet to start a competitive game for Mourinho since his summer move from Borussia Dortmund, and Paul Pogba has it all to do from deep given the muddied lack of clarity ahead of him. Against Hull, the dysfunctional state of their build-up play was laid bare versus an opponent unwilling to give the visitors an easy ride.
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Mike Phelan had prepared his players well. Hull were stubborn, organised, compact in their own half when under pressure and able to meter out their own harassment further up the field to deny United’s players time on the ball. This was never going to be a game that Mourinho and his team could stroll through, taking an easy win for granted. Hull’s resistance demanded more from their challengers.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was blunted by the hosts’ efforts. His response to being starved of service and space afforded to him was to drop back into midfield, roaming deeper and deeper in search of the ball. Unfortunately, Rooney never looked likely to make up for his striker partner’s decision to fall back by providing the runs off the shoulder his team mates needed. Anthony Martial offered little of his usual sparkle from left wing.
Over on the right, Mata took up plenty of good positions, making himself available for a pass between Hull’s defence and midfield, only to be overlooked for the usual options, sending the play wide or back to Pogba.
The Spaniard might thrive as the focal point in a more prosaic side in need of an artist, such as the Chelsea team he left in 2013; the Frenchman is a midfielder whose ability to carry the ball through the thirds, create chances and run matches from deep opens up the question of whether his club even need a No. 10.
It may sound like a rather churlish observation to make after such a late, dramatic winner against an awkward opponent away from home but it is the sort of redundancy that will cost them dearly against larger rivals, such as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City who they will meet in the first Manchester Derby of the season in September.
The impact of match-winner Marcus Rashford, on as a second-half substitute for Mata in the 72nd minute, ultimately summed up both the issues and solutions to United’s incoherent attack.
Marcus Rashford’s game by numbers vs. Hull:
89% pass accuracy
1 take-on completed
1 chance created
1 goal pic.twitter.com/vOdBLErQdx
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 27, 2016
His pace made all the difference running off Ibrahimovic, who seemed to have abandoned his post up front in favour of squeezing back into the hole alongside Rooney. Mkhitaryan too helped to raise the tempo after he arrived from bench around the hour mark.
Yet it has been clear since United’s pre-season friendlies that the Armenian struggles to play his usual game when sharing a pitch with the club captain. Although he may have mostly played out on the right for Dortmund, he also enjoyed the freedom to wander from his post and into the middle of the park.
So far, he has found his path barred by the presence of Rooney. The desperation of trying to find a goal against Hull finally created the conditions for him to show a glimpse of what he could be capable of as any semblance of a system, however flawed, disappeared late on.
Mourinho’s scatter gun team selection and substitutions set the tone for the closing moments of the game as his players threw everything at Hull but without a clear plan of how to pick their foes apart.
Just as became the case under Louis van Gaal, whose own ill-defined system floundered against less celebrated opponents, it took the irresistible effervescence of Rashford to cut through the noise and interference of his manager’s indecisiveness and the ill-fitting collection of would-be orchestrators clumped together on the field.
This cannot go on if United are to achieve their objectives and fulfill their potential this season. In Rooney, Mata, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Ibrahimovic’s competing, conflicting attempts to be the creative centre-points, they will only ever find discord and wastage. Hesitancy shouldn’t be allowed to creep in to undermine a team so rich in talent, and it doesn’t have to.
Rashford finally allowed his team to get to the point, rather than dithering through a rogues gallery of different, ineffective middle men, deliberating and dwelling on the ball rather than finding quality against an opponent set up to rebuff attacks spammed at their penalty area in quantity. Curtis Davies embodies Hull’s defence – he might just be the busiest centre-back in the Premier League, and is already leading the way for defensive actions per game.
If Rashford’s goal leads to the teenager winning more starts and first team appearances then so to should the clear and obvious uncertainty that he helped to clear up late into the game underline why Mourinho must be less complacent in his use of Rooney and Ibrahimovic and more decisive in how he sets his side up.
Either give Mata the prominence he needs to shape a more process-driven attack, or drop him. Try giving Mkhitaryan the license he needs to hurt teams – the Armenian was involved in 49 goals as a scorer or created last season for Dortmund.
Discard the notion of playing a No. 10 all together and allow Pogba the free role that will get the best out of him in a midfield three. A 4-3-3 would suit every single one of Mourinho’s players bar Wayne Rooney, but it seems unlikely the captain will be dropped.
Pogba v Hull:
17% shot accuracy
10 failed passes
1 chance created
1 take on
Rain on the parade pic.twitter.com/3CaHRG77Lj
— Rory Briggs (@RWABriggs) August 27, 2016
Of course, it would be hard to justify leaving Rooney out of the team after he grabbed an assist for Rashford, adding to his goal on the opening weekend of the season against Bournemouth and another assist against Southampton. His ability to find goals and force chances, by hook or by crook, certainly shouldn’t be sniffed at, but surely United are a side that aspire to more given the players now at their disposal?
Hull’s heroics didn’t make United muddled. It was Mourinho’s failure to get off the fence that caused his side to suffer and stutter, and they needn’t have to. Following an expensive summer of acquisitions, there is no longer a clear weakness in the squad at Old Trafford – they are spoiled for choices and the manager must do better to figure out his best team. This current hodgepodge just won’t do, with or without Marcus Rashford.