Much has been made this season of Romelu Lukaku’s poor form, after going from scoring 27 goals in all competitions last season, to having just ended a 12-match goal drought against Southampton on Saturday.
Anthony Martial stepped up to the plate for a few weeks before going off the boil again in recent games. Marcus Rashford’s finishing has been questionable, with Jose Mourinho courting attention for his exaggerated response to the youngster’s early miss against Young Boys, before assisting two goals this weekend.
Had our forwards been as clinical with their chances as strikers at other clubs, we wouldn’t be seventh. However, when you compare United’s goal tally this season with the teams that are above us, it becomes obvious that our most pressing worry shouldn’t be our attack.
We’ve scored two more goals than Everton, yet they are higher than us thanks to goal difference. We’re on -1 while they’re on +5.
Tottenham Hotspur have scored just three goals more than us but are eight points better off, yet the most striking comparison is with Liverpool. They’ve scored just five goals more than us this season yet are 14 points ahead of us! Their goal difference is +22.
The eight teams immediately below us in the table all have a better defensive record than us, including Newcastle, who are just three points off the relegation zone. Yet we’ve conceded four more goals than them.
Mourinho was aware that our defence wasn’t good enough and made it clear that a world class central-defender and full-back were on his shopping list in the summer. In July, it was reported that United had agreed personal terms with Juventus’ Alex Sandro, but the club wouldn’t meet the Italian team’s evaluation as they had a budget in mind.
Another player the manager had signalled as a transfer target was Tottenham Hotspur’s Toby Alderweireld, but Ed Woodward briefed the press claiming the 29-year-old didn’t represent good value and wasn’t significantly better than what the club already had in defence.
Having finished second last season, albeit by some distance behind Manchester City, Mourinho needed to be backed in the transfer window if we were to make the required progress this season. While teams rivalling us for league positions all strengthened in the summer, Mourinho was given £19m to bring in a teenage right-back for the future, as well as the funds for Fred, with the hope he could be the player to unlock Paul Pogba in midfield.
In contrast, Jurgen Klopp was given £156m, Maurizio Sarri spent £130m, and even Pep Guardiola, whose team won the league with ease last season, was given a further £65m to improve his squad.
Some have argued that the club don’t trust Mourinho with money in the transfer market, as an explanation of why the money dried up in his third summer. Firstly, if that is the case, then they shouldn’t have extended his contract earlier this year and instead sacked him in the summer. But more importantly, he’s only signed 11 players over three years. Two of those were free transfers and one was third-choice goalkeeper Lee Grant.
United had the second best defensive record in the league last season, which was hugely aided by David de Gea, the best goalkeeper in the world, having his best season to date. Only City had a better record, with us conceding just one more than them. A season further on, you could hardly believe this same backline managed to concede so few goals. We let in 28 in 38 games last season, but are already on 22 in 14 this season. That’s a difference of 0.7 goals per game compared with 1.6.
In general, the performance level is much worse this season, and the manager is ultimately accountable for that. He won’t ever leave Nemanja Matic out of the team, despite the Serbian looking like a shadow of the player he was in the first few months after joining us from Chelsea, which doesn’t help our defence. Neither does the fact our ageing players at the back are starting to look every bit their age. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are 33, while Chris Smalling, at 29, has already passed his peak, worryingly.
Valencia has made 336 appearances for United (more than Cristiano Ronald0) and Smalling has 305 (more than Vidic), yet even at their best they were a just a very poor man’s version of the players they replaced, let alone before their decline.
The biggest argument used against Mourinho being afforded the money required to improve the defence was that the centre-halves he’s bought already haven’t been good enough, but this is flawed.
When you consider Klopp was allowed to sign Virgil van Dijk for £75m, and Guardiola has spent £280m on goalkeepers and defenders alone, you have to question whether the £60m Mourinho was given for two 22-year-old defenders, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, was ever going to be enough. Do you honestly believe that Mourinho preferred to sign those unknown youngsters on the cheap over an experienced world-class centre-half? He tried to do the best he could with what he was given and Lindelof, who was named Swedish Player of the Year a few weeks ago, has come on leaps and bounds and he’s still only 24.
For what it’s worth, I still think there’s a player in Bailly too, but his atrocious showings at the start of the season have condemned him to the wilderness. And that’s on the manager. But it’s hard to think of a performance as bad in recent years as Bailly’s against Brighton, and when you consider the horror shows we’ve seen from Smalling and Phil Jones in recent years, that’s really saying something. Smalling’s performance in the 4-0 against Chelsea a couple of years back was rock bottom but that came when he had a broken toe in two places.
Reports now suggest that Valencia, Young and Smalling are all getting their contracts extended. Can you imagine the same decision being made at City, Liverpool or Chelsea?
Guardiola was allowed to shift the dead wood in defence and spend a fortune on bringing in better players. Aleksandar Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna were all moved on, and Aymeric Laporte (£57m), Benjamin Mendy (£52m), John Stones (£48m) and Kyle Walker (£45m) were brought in to replace them. United can’t match those transfer fees for even one of our defenders in the same time, let alone four.
If Mourinho had inherited the defence Guardiola did, we’d still be starting the likes of Zabaleta and Clichy in our biggest games. Young and Valencia were half decent wingers, who have both had some good campaigns in their natural positions in the past. Valencia was even named our player of the season. Seven years ago. The fact they still start so many games in their reinvented roles, at a team that is supposed to challenge for the title, is madness.
Smalling didn’t make the England squad, while Jones was a sub, yet Harry Maguire, a player Woodward didn’t believe would improve the team, played a starting role during the World Cup. That’s not the say that Maguire was the answer but it would be easy to argue he’s better than what United have, and yet still shouldn’t be considered good enough to be a transfer target.
Had Mourinho been allowed to improve his defence with even half the money Guardiola has been given, United wouldn’t be running away with the title this year, which again, shows our manager’s failings, but it’s not hard to imagine we’d be a whole letter better than we have been. Or at the very least, would have a better defensive record than Newcastle!
There are so many things ‘the biggest club in the world (TM)’ are getting wrong these days but our handling of the defence and failure to stump up the cash to improve it is up there with the worst of it. We can sack Mourinho and that may improve things. But we’re never going to be where we should be while the Glazers and clueless Woodward are running the show, and insist that Valencia, Smalling, Jones and Shaw are good enough for a team that is supposed to challenge for top honours.