12 July 2017
Manchester United have already spent over £100million this summer, but have they actually addressed the biggest issue facing Jose Mourinho’s squad ahead of a season in which another Champions League qualification via the Europa League simply won’t do?
No doubt, the Red Devils needed to find a way of replacing Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goals and all-round quality in the final third, something £75million acquisition Romelu Lukaku is more than capable of doing. But that problem could have been resolved internally; during Louis van Gaal’s final season in charge, Anthony Martial netted 17 times across all competitions, whilst Marcus Rashford has emerged as one of the most exciting young forwards in Europe. Whatever happened to giving youth a chance?
Perhaps Mourinho doesn’t believe either are ready for that kind of challenge, whereas Lukaku has more than proved himself in the Premier League with five consecutive double-figures-reaching campaigns under his belt, including a 25-goal haul last season that put him second in the division’s Golden Boot race. What’s more, Lukaku is a sound long-term investment even for the money United paid – the Belgium international has the best part of a decade, at a bare minimum, ahead of him at top level.
However, a new top-class striker arguably shouldn’t have been the priority this summer. The Red Devils need more star quality in a vast yet largely uninspiring squad, but with Rashford and Martial already at his disposal – two forwards every club in the Premier League would like to get their hands on – Mourinho should have started the summer by focusing on who will be supplying his forward line.
United produced the fourth-most created chances of any Premier League side last season, but could only muster up the eighth-most goals, outscored by the rest of the top seven and even Eddie Howe’s ninth-placed Bournemouth. At first glance, that suggests the problem at Old Trafford was putting away chances – something signing Lukaku should naturally address. But statistics are never as absolute as they seem and interpretations are always a matter of opinion; one alternative explanation is that the quality of the chances Manchester United produced last season wasn’t actually that good.
That theory becomes more convincing when you consider the positions those chances came from. Attacking midfield is usually the hub of creativity in any given team, but only one (one-and-a-half including Wayne Rooney) attacking midfielder ranked in Manchester United’s top six for created chances last season – Juan Mata. The rest included Ibrahimovic, defender Antonio Valencia and central midfield duo Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba.
It’s a similar story with assists – United’s most consistent provider was Herrera, followed by Martial, Rooney, Ibrahimovic and Pogba. Perhaps most damningly, no United player ranked in the Premier League’s top ten for key passes per match last term. Their highest return in that regard was Pogba with 1.9 – the Premier League’s highest, meanwhile, was Christian Eriksen with 3.1.
Perhaps that’s a question of tactics; United infamously operated almost as a back six at times last season with the wide players tracking back. A more solid base behind them, which Mourinho hopes Lindelof and a defensive midfield signing – likely Eric Dier – can provide next season, could see the United gaffer free up those players, allowing them to stay higher up the pitch and play with less defensive responsibility.
And looking at the players currently at Mourinho’s disposal, they’re not exactly awe-inspiring when compared to United’s divisional rivals. Henrikh Mkhitaryan will surely have a better 2017/18 after coming in and out of the side last term and Juan Mata is a fine technical talent who has proved himself to be a real match-winner, but neither are quite the same creative calibre as Mesut Ozil at Arsenal, Eden Hazard at Chelsea, Kevin De Bruyne at Manchester City and arguably Philippe Coutinho at Liverpool and Christian Eriksen at Tottenham. After that, Mourinho only has the likes of Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard to fall back on before putting square pegs – namely Martial and Rashford – in round holes.
Make no mistake, Manchester United have been linked with players for those positions this summer, most recently Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic. There’s also the dilemma of whether Pogba, as a roaming No.8, can be in the same line-up as a central No.10. Based on last season’s performances, in which his tactical naivety and lack of defensive discipline often stood out, Mourinho is unlikely to take that risk – especially if it requires investment in a central attacking midfielder this summer.
But the real concern is how United have prioritised their summer business. Rather than focusing on a top-class creative force for the gap between midfield and attack, someone like Bernardo Silva, Thomas Lemar or Emil Forsberg, who all got at least three assists more than any United player last season, Mourinho has devoted his attentions to centre-forward and centre-half.
Of course, different pursuits move at different times depending on other business around the continent, but the £100million already spent strongly hints at where Mourinho’s priorities lay this summer.