Negative Jose Mourinho must change if Manchester United want to thrive
With Manchester United's 25-match unbeaten streak finally at an end in the Premier League, the state of their season again falls into sharp focus, and the view is not an exhilarating one.
The performance against Arsenal was not only very disappointing but also deeply revealing. Sunday's 2-0 defeat came after manager Jose Mourinho made eight changes in order to rest players for the second leg of the Europa League semifinal against Celta Vigo.
United were listless and thoroughly short of ideas. The very same weekend, Real Madrid provided an unfortunate contrast. Fielding what was essentially a B-team against Granada, they showed the extraordinary scale of their resources. They could call upon Fabio Coentrao, James Rodriguez, Alvaro Morata and Matteo Kovacic -- each of whom could reasonably expect to start for any elite team in the Premier League. Given that United are wealthier than even Madrid, the sense is of an enduring underinvestment in the squad. Considering United's financial resources, their playing staff are threadbare by comparison.
This is by no means to argue that merely spending more money is the solution. If it were, then United would have won the league this season -- after all, it is not exactly as if last summer's transfers, in terms of either wages or fees, came cheap. Though the Glazer family has long been rightly criticised for draining funds from the club -- which they steadfastly continue to do -- they have made money available to Mourinho, and he has spent it well.
It's the tactical approach that is also lacking. The team is far more timid than it should be. This collection of players should be scoring far more goals than they are. Finishing has been a consistent problem this year, with several of the team's forwards being profligate. Yet this issue is so glaring and so sustained that it can no longer be put down to mere individual incompetence. When a series of players miss chance after chance, there is something wrong at a systemic level.
The prevailing view seems to be that if United only converted those opportunities, then they would be far higher in the league. That's inarguable but also leads to a wider and more pressing question: why aren't they converting them?
There will be little sympathy for any concern that these players are especially anxious in front of goal, particularly given the outlandish sums with which they are rewarded. At the same time, it might well be they are feeling exceptional amounts of pressure. How else can we explain their repeated losses of composure? It is not as if they are not working hard on the field. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is many things, but lazy is not one of them. The same is true for Jesse Lingard, who despite some failings in his build-up play first emerged as someone who could be a decisive finisher. At his best, Anthony Martial is no slouch in front of goal. And the list goes on.
If United go out and buy outstanding forwards, that will not solve everything. There seems to be something structurally wrong with the way they attack. Very often, only one of their full-backs presses forward -- this is clear in Mourinho's increasing use of Matteo Darmian, a defender whom he can trust to be conservative in both movement and possession.
This means the opposition's defenders have a far lesser and more predictable threat to deal with. One of the more forlorn sights of this season was watching Martial drift out to the right flank against Arsenal, where he was surrounded by three defenders with no support in sight. There are very few players in world football who could emerge from that kind of mismatch with anything productive, and most of them are playing up front for Barcelona.
Of course this has not been the entire story of United's season -- there have been some games, some extended passages of play, in which they seem to throw off the shackles and play football that is both creative and effective. The 2-0 win against Chelsea was a glorious glimpse into what can be achieved.
Yet that performance risks standing out as an anomaly if the team's approach is not changed in other games. It is notable that most of the time, when faced by the most remote threat of defeat, Mourinho encourages his side to retreat into an ultra-defensive crouch, as if there is no other option for them but to hurl up the barricades, seek a 0-0 draw and creep away.
This excessive caution might win the odd battle, but in an era when attacking football is the dominant trend, it will always, always lose the war.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.