Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United made a blitzing start to the season, scoring four on a weekly basis and were playing some of the best attacking football in the country.
But recently things haven’t been quite right with the Red Devils and as a result the title challenge is nigh on finished, and top four is again the familiar aspiration for the remainder of this term.
Here’s five reasons United have gone off the boil in the chase for the title…
5. Pogba Not Shining
Does it seem unfair to pit a huge bulk of the blame on one player?..yes?… then good because it’s also down to the manager.
Paul Pogba was United’s finest league performer in the opening months and people were speculating on whether we’d see his full potential this year.
But he seems to have gone off the boil again and has been substituted twice in his last two games; notably looking downtrodden against Newcastle on Sunday.
The Frenchman simply has too much defensive responsibility put on him in a midfield two – alongside Nemanja Matic – and flourishes left of a midfield three, yet Mourinho continues to persist with a 4-2-3-1 formation to accommodate attacking personnel.
4. Languid Football
Whether it’s a lack of motivation – with the title race being finished – or simply tiredness, United’s fast free flowing football from August is a distant memory in recent months.
The weight of pass seems to have slowed down noticeably, with the side having significant passive/ponderous spells in a game where they will keep possession between the defensive midfield and back four for long periods, forcing the likes of Romelu Lukaku and more recently Alexis Sanchez to come deep to receive the ball into feet.
Pogba’s recent decline also contributes to this, as Nemanja Matic isn’t the most creative force in central midfield and Jesse Lingard occupies the free role higher up field.
3. Deadwood Not ‘Depth’
The common perception is that United have a deep squad full of quality, and while they do have good depth that’s not entirely true.
United fans on social media made it clear in the January window that they felt certain players needed to be offloaded; with the likes of Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling and Marouane Fellaini topping the list.
Little reminders, like Darmian’s below-par performance in United’s shock Carabao Cup exit to Bristol City and Chris Smalling’s awful display in the Newcastle defeat on Sunday – in which he failed to make a successful tackle – suggest that certain players simply aren’t up to the lofty standards set at a club like United.
2. Missing Key Players
The recent dip can also be attributed to the fact that Mourinho is missing several key players through injury, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Eric Bailly.
Having scored an impressive 28 goals in his first season in England, United could really do with having someone of Zlatan’s goal scoring pedigree to come off the bench and make a difference in tight games, but the big Swede has been absent for almost the entire season thus far.
The likes of Smalling and developing defender Victor Lindelof have been drafted in for the injured Ivorian, who has instantly excelled in England and looks a real top defender at the club.
As a result defensive mistakes are more prominent in the bigger games and United have dropped far too many points – leading to the next point.
1. Poor Showings Against Top Teams
United have won just two of their six matches against the top six Premier League sides this season, highlighting Mourinho’s struggles with big games since arriving at Old Trafford.
The most glaring example came in the capitulation at Wembley against Tottenham. The result on the day was only 2-0, but United were dominated from start – quite literally, conceding in 13 seconds – to finish and looked mentally defeated from early in the second half.
It has been the case all season though; the negative set-up for the 0-0 at Anfield, the sloppy performance in the Manchester derby, the defeat to a stuttering Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the list goes on.
The fact remains, to win Premier League titles you simply have to win these games.