Premier League Playback: Why is Man United’s midfield breaking down?

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MIDFIELD MUST CHANGE

After three losses in a week Manchester United and Jose Mourinho is reeling.

In their defeats to Manchester City last weekend, Feyenoord in midweek Europa League action and to Watford on Sunday, one thing is clear: the midfield is the main problem area.

In United’s 3-1 defeat at Watford on Sunday the Red Devils’ two central midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba both failed to track runners on each of Watford’s opening two goals and then Fellaini gave away a penalty kick for Watford’s third. It was a horrendous afternoon for them and their woes were intensified by the general mess that is United’s midfield.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams Luke Shaw ]

With Wayne Rooney playing in the No.10 role, United lack cohesion and most importantly balance between their three central players. Neither Fellaini or Pogba are adept at doing the dirty work in the engine room well and Mourinho has to find the right combination in the middle of the pitch to get the best out of his stuttering team.

After the game Mourinho failed to criticize either Pogba or Fellaini publicly. Instead he turned on 21-year-old left back Luke Shaw for his role in the build up to Watford’s second goal.

Mourinho admitted his players must deal with the pressure of a bad situation better, but so must he. Sunday’s defeat marked the first time he’s lost three competitive games consecutively in a single season since he was in charge at FC Porto in the 2001-02 season. The meltdown usually arrives for him in his third season at other clubs but after just three months in charge at Old Trafford things are already getting a little out of hand.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Continuing to play Fellaini and Pogba together in a midfield tandem will not work and will result in more defeats. Fellaini is hit and miss in this holding role, while Pogba just isn’t disciplined enough defensively to dovetail with a player who has had a handful of games in the deeper position. The balance isn’t correct and it is throwing everything off.

Take the second goal in the highlights above as a perfect example of all that is wrong with that midfield partnership. When Nordin Amrabat has the ball, Pogba points to Fellaini to take the run of Roberto Pereyra even though he is closer to him. That leaves a huge gap for Pereyra to pull the ball back into and Juan Camilo Zuniga then ran in-behind Pogba to finish and seal the win for the Hornets.

That’s just looking at the defensive side of things in midfield…

Going forward Rooney’s presence is stifling United’s midfielders and even Zlatan Ibrahimovic from being at their best. Rooney, 30, is clogging up the central attacking area which is attracting too many defenders towards him and isn’t allowing Ibrahimovic to drop deep and start attacks. The veteran Swedish striker is so good at doing that but he was isolated up front against Watford and is growing increasingly frustrated.

Rooney’s form should be worrying for Mourinho too. When he first arrived at United this summer, Mourinho pigeonholed himself when stating that Rooney would always be a No.9 or No.10 in his eyes and never a deeper midfield player as he was under Louis Van Gaal for the second half of last season. Rooney’s form is way short of where it should be and despite brief glimpses with a cross against Southampton, a run and cross against Hull and a close-range header against Bournemouth, United’s skipper doesn’t warrant a start anymore.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule | stats ]  

Those calling for Rooney to be moved into a deeper role in midfield should save their breath. Mourinho won’t do it. His words early in his reign at Old Trafford effectively said “Rooney, I’ll play you up front but if you don’t score goals, you know what will happen.” Rooney has scored once in five games and that was on the opening day of the season. Mourinho now has the perfect excuse to drop him, which is perhaps what he wanted to do all along.

If United are to get the best out of all of their best talents, this is how they should line up in the games to come.

—– De Gea —–

— Valencia — Bailly — Blind — Shaw —

—– Herrera —–

— Martial — Pogba — Mkhitaryan — Rashford —

—- Ibrahimovic —-

With that lineup United have a chance to keep the ball in midfield and it gives Pogba less defensive responsibilities and the chance to combine and run past Ibrahimovic. Pogba’s best attributes are charging in on goal in the final third, or smashing shots from distance or curling inch-perfect passes into the feet of a Marcus Rashford or a Zlatan. You have the most expensive player in the world at your disposal. Why would you not play to his strengths?

Pogba struggled against Man City, Feyenoord and Watford but looked better against the Hornets when he could surge forward as he hit the bar and lashed other efforts over. With Ander Herrera in a holding role you also have a player who can connect passes and keep United moving forward. They simply aren’t keeping the ball enough and are giving it away in key areas in front of their back four which allows other teams to counter quickly.

Think of how Pogba flourished at Juventus. Who was alongside him most of the time? Andrea Pirlo. I’m not saying Herrera is near that level, but the same principle would suit United’s midfield best and give them balance. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan alongside Pogba breaking from midfield, you also have the leading assist man from the Bundesliga last season. When Mkhitaryan is fit, he has to play centrally. He is much more effective in a No.10 role than he was in his ghastly first half display out wide against Manchester City. Mkhitaryan is also much more effective than Rooney in that central role.

Premier League Schedule – Week 5

Result Recap & Highlights
Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool Recap, watch here
C. Palace 4-1 Stoke Recap, watch here
Everton 3-1 M’boro Recap, watch here
Hull 1-4 Arsenal Recap, watch here
Leicester 3-0 Burnley Recap, watch here
Man City 4-0 B’mouth Recap, watch here
Saints 1-0 Swansea Recap, watch here
Tottenham 1-0 S’land Recap, watch here
Watford 3-1 Man Utd Recap, watch here
WBA 4-2 West Ham Recap, watch here

Mourinho has often gone with brutish central midfielders in his teams to break opponents down. He doesn’t have to do that at United. With Eric Bailly stepping out of defense to win balls, Herrera can use the ball to connect things together.

Rooney is the odd man out and until his form improves or Mourinho can find a better formula for his midfield struggles, it should remain that way. Getting the best out of big summers signings Pogba and Mkhitaryan has to be the priority if United are going to turnaround this worrying run of defeats.

It is still early in the season but Mourinho is struggling to fine tune this team packed with expensive stars. Sound familiar? For most United fans this is already getting a little too similar to Louis van Gaal’s time in charge.

We all know how that ended…


MERSEYSIDE RISING

A few miles across the north west of England, Liverpool and Everton are flying high.

Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool have beaten Arsenal, Leicester City and now Chelsea to have 10 points from their opening five games and although Everton’s schedule of games has been far kinder, Ronald Koeman has led the Toffees to their best-ever start in the PL with four wins from five and 13 points from a possible 15 to sit just first-place behind Manchester City.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]  

Under the “Friday Night Lights” at Stamford Bridge, Klopp’s Liverpool put in a complete display. Thanks to an early Dejan Lovren goal after a mix-up at the back from Chelsea and Jordan Henderson‘s wonder goal they were 2-0 up in the first half. Klopp’s side then sat back and soaked up pressure, looking more mature than they did last season when they probably would’ve gone for it and flooded forward at every opportunity. This team is maturing and even after Diego Costa pulled one back for Chelsea, the excellent Georginio Wijnaldum and Henderson in central midfield sat in and broke up the play masterfully to grind out the win.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Player ratings ]

It was a marquee win for Klopp against Antonio Conte and showed his side has more strings to their bow than just full-throttle attacking.

Yes, it is early days but can Klopp and Liverpool challenge for the title? Here’s what he thought when asked that after the game at Stamford Bridge on Friday.

“I am really not interested in what people think. I had the same question the game we won here 3-1 last time against Chelsea. My answer was ‘are you crazy?’” Klopp laughed. “Everything is good, we have 10 points that is fantastic. I am really happy after these difficult fixtures but the season is not over, we have to play football. We know we can play football and we are convinced in our quality, that is all the truth. In the end we have to prove it every week.”

As for Everton, they suddenly look much more solid defensively and Idrissa Gueye looks like the buy of the season so far, cleaning up everything in midfield and starting attacks for the Toffees. Such is the plethora of attacking options in Koeman’s squad, talk of a title push is in the air around Goodison. That was also firmly swatted away by Koeman who also isn’t cray-cray.

“Normally we can’t win the title – Leicester last season is an exception,” Koeman said. “You have the EFL Cup and the FA Cup – that’s important for most of the teams. If I tell you we will fight for the title, most people will say ‘the man is crazy’. The big teams have much more quality.”

Still, it’s fun for fans of Liverpool and Everton to have a much more positive start to a season than they’ve had in the past two campaigns.

Below are my thoughts on Liverpool’s win at Chelsea live pitch-side at Stamford Bridge on Friday. Enjoy.


DE BRUYNE DIFFERENT CLASS

Following the Manchester derby I wrote that Kevin de Bruyne was the difference between the two teams. The Belgian forward continues to be the difference-maker for Manchester City as they brushed aside Bournemouth 4-0 at the weekend to stay top and perfect in the Premier League with 15 points from 15.

[ VIDEO: Guardiola on quadruple chances ]

De Bruyne, 25, sent a cheeky free kick under the wall for City’s first, led a lightning-quick counter attack for their second and slotted in Ilkay Gundogan with a masterful pass for City’s fourth.

With Sergio Aguero out suspended, De Bruyne is stepping up big time in a central attacking role just behind Kelechi Iheanacho (who continues to score and now has 10 goals with just 14 shots on target in the PL).

Pep Guardiola believes there are few better than KDB. Probably only Lionel Messi.

“Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there,” Guardiola said. “Kevin is an outstanding player, he is a player at another level. He understands the game, he is physically strong, he helps us out a lot defensively, aggressive without the ball and with the ball it is clear. He knows absolutely everything, he sees absolutely everything and in front of goal he makes assists and scores goals. We are so, so lucky that we have Kevin with us.”

Hard to disagree with any of that. City, but especially De Bruyne, are on a different level to start the season.


NEW HERO FOR LEICESTER

Islam Slimani is the new hero in Leicester.

The Algerian striker, 28, scored twice on his Premier League debut as the Foxes beat Burnley 3-0 at the King Power Stadium on Saturday to cap off a memorable weekend for Claudio Ranieri‘s side.

Last Tuesday they beat Club Brugge 3-0 in their first-ever UEFA Champions League game and now they’ve shown they can handle midweek UCL games away from home and deal with the bread and butter of winning games in the PL at the weekend. Leicester may not win the title this season but they look set to have a real good go at finishing in the top four.

Slimani’s goals could prove vital because whenever Jamie Vardy‘s goals dried up last season they struggled. Shinji Okazaki and Leonardo Ulloa scored some vital goals but had just 11 between them in the league and their new striker gives them a different option with his aerial ability well suited to Leicester’s direct style of play. Slimani’s stats at Sporting Lisbon speak for themselves with the bruising Algerian scoring 57 goals in 109 games in all competitions. He also has 23 goals in 44 games for Algeria and seems like the perfect foil for Vardy as the duo combined well against Burnley in the little and large roles.

Tougher tests will arrive for Leicester, most notably their trip to Old Trafford to play a wounded Man United this Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports), but Ranieri’s side have rebounded well after some early season wobbles with defeats at Hull City and Liverpool. 

The fairytale lives on.


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here