Cohesiveness the key to Manchester United’s title quest

Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera, third from left, celebrates his goal with teammates during the first half of the International Champions Cup tournament soccer match against Real Madrid on Tuesday, July 31, 2018, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

It feels like the beginning of the end for Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, which may also be why it could be wise to expect quite the opposite.

The Portuguese manager, by all accounts, has spent the summer being at his miserable best due to one underlying factor. His comments throughout the club’s American pre-season tour have had a clear focus, repeatedly emphasizing the need to depend on reserve players since his first team-options are either still recovering from the World Cup, have picked up injuries whilst on tour, or, perhaps most irksome, have yet to be acquired through the transfer window.

“My CEO knows what I want and I still have a few days to wait and see what happens,” Mourinho told MUTV most recently. “The other clubs who compete with us are really strong and already have fantastic teams. Or they are investing massively like Liverpool, who are buying everything and everybody.

“If we don’t make our team better it will be a difficult season for us.”

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As much as Mourinho appears to be pushing for Harry Maguire, Toby Alderweireld, or the recently rumoured Jerome Boateng, there is a case for why executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has been hesitant to splash the cash. It’s not as if defence was a major issue for United last season. They conceded 28 goals, second-fewest in the league and just one more than eventual winners Manchester City.

The Portuguese manager himself requested both Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof over the past two seasons, and Woodward may still want to see what both are truly capable of before granting another centre-back wish. Bailly made only 13 league appearances due to an ankle injury, while Lindelof was experiencing the physicality and style of the league for the first time. He was a key member of a Sweden team that was excellent defensively through both World Cup qualifying and the tournament itself.

Mourinho has also failed to inspire the likes of Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian to greater heights and now appears unhappy with one of the club’s stalwarts, right-back Antonio Valencia.

“Antonio Valencia comes from holiday, I think too much holiday for him,” Mourinho told MUTV before their friendly against Real Madrid. “His condition was not good when he was back, then injury, and also go back.”

What one must keep in mind here is that Mourinho may just be up to his old tricks. He has long been the master of mind games, and if he feels he needs to be this adamant about the lack of depth in his squad to push Woodward over the line and complete his desired transfer(s), then this is what he’s going to do. His competitive spirit can never be doubted, and he will not want a third successive season of failing to mount a serious bid for the Premier League title.

For all the ways in which the 55-year-old has been criticized by the media for not being the right type of manager for United, the one connective tissue that does bring club and manager together is a history of winning. A pragmatic, defence-first approach may not be the style of play the club’s fans grew accustomed to during the Sir Alex Ferguson era, nor the constant back-and-forth with the media (though Ferguson did have his moments, too). But, the difference in perception after his first season where he brought home three trophies for the cabinet compared to last year when there were none is proof winning is of the highest priority.

Is he walking the line of trying to be too big? It’s possible, Ferguson never hesitated in reminding his players no one is bigger than the club, but Mourinho does seem more intent on reminding his players that no one is bigger than him.

For United, this is why they signed Mourinho in the first place. As Marina Hyde of The Guardian eloquently pointed out, it’s been great for business. If more trophies come along with it, as much as some may not like it, they will be forced to respect it.

Woodward did get some transactions over the line early on, bringing in Brazilian midfielder Fred, full-back Diogo Dalot, and reserve goalkeeper Lee Grant. The Brazilian is the only one of the three likely to be a permanent fixture in the first-team, possibly allowing Paul Pogba more freedom to roam up the pitch and influence matches in the way he did for France at the World Cup.

If the most successful side in English club history is to make a serious challenge this season, it starts and ends with the Frenchman. The Rolls Royce that exquisitely patrols up and down the pitch featured in United’s starting eleven 25 times a season ago, appearing for at least 70 minutes on 23 occasions. The team lost just one of those games (to Brighton), won 17 and drew five times. United only collected 25 out of a maximum 45 points in the 15 other games, proving just how vital Pogba is to the club’s success.

In order for Mourinho to get 30-odd games of his premier player’s best, he must avoid the blip that occurred in early 2018, when Pogba appeared to be at odds with the manager and struggling to kick into gear.

While Fred may only be one man, his ability to put in the hard yards alongside Nemanja Matic and allow Pogba to scratch his itch to get forward as much as possible will be a key factor in keeping the French talisman satisfied and United in the title race.

Then, there is the man who will be at the forefront of United’s attack, Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian forward found another level in helping lead his country to just their second World Cup semifinal appearance with four goals, and he will be hoping to carry that form into this season. He will also be eager to shed the tag of being a small-club-bully, having scored just one (versus Chelsea) of his 16 league goals against teams in the top six. United did come away with a healthy tally of 19 points from those 10 games, but it’s hard to imagine that success continuing without him bulging the onion bag.

What Lukaku did offer in spades last season outside of the goal-scoring against lesser teams was his work ethic. To feature 33 times in the starting 11 is impressive, especially when considering how important physicality is to his success, and it likely would have been more if not for a late-season injury against Arsenal that forced him to miss the final three games of the season. He must be supported better, too. Far too often, Lukaku cut an isolated figure that better teams could easily neutralize. His fantastic run through the middle of the pitch against Brazil before laying the ball off to Kevin De Bruyne to score as well as his dummy that led to Nacer Chadli’s last minute winner against Japan at the World Cup show he has the ability to impact the game without scoring, but he needs his midfielders to be more credible goal threats to take the pressure off him.

One player who can ease those concerns and has a reputation for goal scoring is Alexis Sanchez. Acquired in a swap-deal with Arsenal in January for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Chilean made a fairly anonymous start to his United career. Sanchez struggled to find a comfort zone trying to fit in over the final few months of the season as he looked to occupy areas of the pitch Pogba usually thrived in, but he is the one player to have hit the ground running this pre-season. The sharpness Sanchez exhibited with his first-touch and a fitness level arguably aided by his country’s absence from the World Cup bodes well for a loud start to his 2018-19 campaign.

With Tottenham looking to further their growth, Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery set to begin new eras at Chelsea and Arsenal, respectively, and having seen Liverpool address the majority of its weaknesses by adding Roma’s Alisson, Monaco’s Fabinho, Leipzig’s Naby Keita and Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri, Mourinho will know that cutting into the significant gap between United and City — as evidenced by their 19-point deficit last season — will be far from the only challenge they face this year.

Yet, after last season only offered glimpses of Bailly and Sanchez and, now, Fred potentially opening the door for an unfettered Pogba, United should believe they have what they need to create a title-winning campaign. Whether Mourinho gets his desired recruits or not, maintaining harmony between the lot he’s got will be paramount to any hopes of lifting the Premier League trophy.

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