It may only be early October, but Manchester United have already given away significant ground in the Premier League title race.
A home draw with Stoke City at the weekend means that United have dropped eight points from their opening seven matches and fans are concerned that this could mark another season without challenging for England’s top domestic prize.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) October 2, 2016
Previous bosses David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal failed to find an identity for their sides, but is Jose Mourinho any closer to solving this particular problem?
In truth, the Reds could easily have won Sunday’s match by three or four goals were it not for a hatful of missed chances by marquee summer signings Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, along with a string of excellent saves from Stoke’s stand-in keeper Lee Grant.
Overall it was a relatively good performance from United which could mark a step in the right direction in terms of finding a cohesive style to their play.
Their tactics going forward were to have Juan Mata as the playmaker, Ibrahimovic as the target man, with runners getting beyond him in the form of Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and towards the end of the match Anthony Martial.
With the Swedish striker occupying the Potters’ central defence, space was left in behind for the younger players to exploit.
Man Utd shouldíve scored 4 goals in the first 30 minutes and been out of sight. Nothing Mourinho couldíve done – abysmal in front of goal.
— Liam Canning (@LiamPaulCanning) October 2, 2016
This approach requires pace and energy in the team along with a willingness break ranks in support of the centre-forward, which is why Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney have struggled to break into the side in recent weeks.
Against Stoke, it looked like a philosophy that could be very effective given the personnel at Mourinho’s disposal and it may be the key to success after the wilderness years post-Sir Alex Ferguson.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) October 2, 2016
Under the Scot, United relied more on natural wingers such as Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo to stay wide and stretch teams, with high-tempo attacking that sought to overwhelm the opposition.
The pace of the game would be dictated from midfield, with the likes of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and later Michael Carrick instrumental in starting moves from deep.
This is not a style that suits the current side; the best passer of the ball, Mata, prefers to operate further forward between the opponents’ midfield and defence, whilst the wingers form part of a front three rather than a midfield four.
However, Ferguson’s United showed that a strong team identity was vital to sustaining success; indeed, the idea of moulding a team in the image of their manager is something clearly prevalent at the top of the Premier League this season.
Manchester City and Arsenal both adopt a patient, probing approach with an emphasis on moving the ball around quickly in front of the opposition whilst looking for openings between the lines.
On the other hand, Liverpool and Tottenham play a higher tempo pressing game, looking to steal possession in the opponents’ half and hit them with counter attacks, as exemplified by Spurs’ dismantling of City on Sunday.
They executed their game plan to perfection.
This is how Spurs beat Man City…
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) October 3, 2016
These teams make up the current top four, but United don’t possess the players required to replicate either of these philosophies.
This is not a negative; last season’s champions Leicester City showed that you don’t necessarily have to stick to the status quo in order to be successful.
Manchester United teams of old were heralded for their attacking vigour and it is something that Mourinho must deliver in one way or another if he is to placate the Old Trafford faithful, who have sat through three consecutive campaigns of mediocrity.
The Portuguese’s predecessors were lambasted for playing slow, impotent football; perhaps he has struck on a formula to bring the good times back to the Theatre of Dreams.