The majority of Jose Mourinho’s first season in charge at Manchester United has been dominated by one major issue: his side does not score enough goals. It is hard to argue with the criticism, for while United have only failed to score in five Premier League games this season, their profligacy in front of goal has meant they have struggled to put games to bed, which has in turn seen them drop precious points.
However, while the issue needs addressing, as Mourinho himself has repeatedly stressed throughout the campaign, United’s sterility in front of goal has overshadowed their defensive improvements.
United have so far conceded just 24 goals in the Premier League, the second-meanest defence in the league after Tottenham’s, and remain on course to better their defensive records from the last two seasons, when they conceded 35 and 37 league goals respectively.
Mourinho’s men also boast Europe’s joint-best defence, alongside Juventus and Bayern Munich, conceding just 0.7 goals per game across all competitions. United have in fact conceded 10 goals more than Juventus and Bayern but have also played 10 and eight games more respectively, meaning their goal conceded per game ratio is exactly the same as that of their two European counterparts.
This might not seem particular impressive, given Mourinho has long been criticised for being a manager capable only of shutting shop as soon as his sides take the lead, but it is no mean feat considering how defensive United were under Louis Van Gaal.
Furthermore, their solidity at the back has not been detrimental to their attacking intent, for in more than one occasion they have looked much more dangerous and entertaining in the final third of the pitch than at any point over the last three seasons.
Even more impressively, however, United can boast the league’s second-best defensive record despite a squad that remains short of the world class defender they have lacked since Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand departed.
Eric Bailly’s arrival from Villarreal in the summer was met with more than a healthy dose of scepticism but the Ivorian has proved to be very astute signing and while he remains understandably raw, at times he has played with a maturity that belies his 23 years of age.
However, while he’s probably further ahead in his development than many expected, Bailly can’t yet be included in the bracket of world class defenders – one which, admittedly, is scarcely populated these days.
Sadly for them and for Mourinho, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have both been beset by injuries and by the usual catalogue of errors, which makes one wonder whether playing for United might not be a step too far for them. After an impressive season under Van Gaal, the former has reverted to type, struggling to impose himself on his opponents and failing to cut the authoritative figure Mourinho expected him to be, when he handed him the captain’s armband in Wayne Rooney’s absence.
The latter, meanwhile, briefly looked to be finally ready to stake a claim for a starting spot after a solid string of performances during the winter, only for his confidence to evaporate yet again as soon as fitness problems resurfaced.
Admittedly, Jones can count himself unlucky to have had his season curtailed by a Smalling tackle, but both of them should have probably run out of chances a few seasons ago.
Conversely, Marcos Rojo, staged the kind of comeback Lazarus would be proud of, as the Argentinian went from pantomime villain to be one of the first names on the team sheet. It speaks volume for Rojo’s improvement that the injury he sustained against Anderlecht on Thursday night is seen by many as the straw that could break the camel’s back, for it leaves Mourinho’s cupboard almost completely bare as far as centre-backs go.
Horrendously out of his depth at left-back, Rojo has slowly grown in confidence since deployed in his natural position and, while the jury remains out, him and Bailly are United’s most solid centre-back pairing, with the ever-dependable Antonio Valencia on their right.
The Ecuadorian has been sensational this season and would be a deserving winner of the club’s player of the season award.
However, if United are to mount a serious title challenge for the first time since 2012-13 next season, it would be surprising not see Mourinho invest on a central defender, particularly given Daley Blind doesn’t appear to be more than a stop-gap option in the position.The Dutchman, along with Matteo Darmian, has occasionally been deployed as left-back this season, as Mourinho continues to search for an answer to the Luke Shaw conundrum. The former Southampton player has all the potential to establish himself as the player everyone thought he would be before his injury but, based on the current campaign, he could well be playing his football elsewhere next season as could David De Gea.