Amidst that sulk, that poker-face, that seemingly ‘unhappy’ slump into his press-conference seat is a very desperate attempt by Jose Mourinho to attract, or at least influence, commiserations from the general public about the state of Manchester United’s season.
These are the facts: United have suffered injuries to key personnel, most of which are long term, at the most crucial third of the season. In the case of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, potentially career defining, at least in terms of his stay at the club.
Ironically, at the half way point of the season, with United enjoying an unusual streak of health in the squad, the manager was keen to point out that he didn’t have enough games going around to please a very large squad and as such had to let a few players leave in January.
Whilst any criticism of the above decision from the manager is largely aided by hindsight, the manager must be aware that he waived his rights to any sympathy as a result of injuries when he sanctioned the player departures in the winter window. The ill in United’s luck is that they seem to be accumulating injuries to players in the same position. For instance, having three centre-backs out will stretch any team.
With potentially 10 games to play between now and the end of the season, Jose Mourinho is caught in a hustle to put out any XI that carries a semblance of freshness and match fitness to see out games. In some positions, such as the centre of defence, as earlier alluded to, the manager cannot make a change owing to the lack of bodies.
Eight changes were made between Thursday’s Europa league quarterfinal win over Anderlecht and the premier league game at Turf Moor on Sunday afternoon. Whilst United were able to get away with it against Burnley, it is a major wonder as to how they will fare when the bigger games come calling. United for instance have their European semi-final ties against Celta-Vigo book-ended by premier league games at Arsenal and at Tottenham Hotspur. How then shall the manager set his side up?
The bold decision would be to play his strongest available side for each of the potentially 10 remaining games of the season. The danger of putting one’s eggs in one basket at this stage of the season, and indeed in this sport is that there are simply no guarantees. Only last season, Liverpool threw away every league game from hereon to reach the final of this competition but lost the final having only finished 7th in the league.
There is a school of thought that United are better placed to be successful in Europe than to make the elite places via the league and yet ahead of the 174th Manchester derby, United sit three points off third with two games in hand on the third placed team. In other words, we’re not quite yet at that stage where it makes economical sense in terms of player resources to throw away league games and go all out for the Europa league.
The other argument against optimism via the league route is that United have got a very difficult run in. Whilst the optics suggest so, I’m not entirely convinced by this given the season we’ve just had. Indeed, at the moment, I am more optimistic in a game involving a top four side than I am against a bottom of the table side.
We’ve seen it at least a dozen times this season when United have failed to beat the alsorans of the league despite total domination. Think of it this way: if our last six games were all home games against Burnley, Hull, Stoke, West Ham, Everton and West Brom, we’d come away from that with only six points! We might as well try our luck in games where the opposition will not sit back and defend. Much like how the club enjoyed a day out against a very high Chelsea defence last week.
In the grand scheme of things, everything in terms of the league standings potentially boils down to Thursday. United are running out of games to leap frog their rivals and get into the Champions League positions. The reverse fixture back in September was arguably the one that knocked United off their rhythm having started the season excellently. The club took ages to recover from it and momentarily slumped into a double digit deficit from Pep Guardiola’s side. The football City played that first half had tongues wax-lyrical and had them nailed on for at least a trophy or two. Since then City have slowly but surely regressed into a situation that some will argue is worse than United’s.
Imagine the brilliant sadistic poetry that could follow if United put the final nail in their rivals’ poor season. Football eh?