One area where Mourinho was right: Man Utd badly needs center backs

Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
1 Comment

Big Manchester United wins and losses, especially post-Alex Ferguson, have a tendency to get overstated at both ends of the spectrum, but there’s plenty to take away from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s recent struggles at the helm of the Red Devils.

[ MORE: Recap | Solskjaer reacts ]

For one thing: Jose Mourinho wasn’t right about much this Manchester United season, but he knew he needed better men in the back.

Everton’s beautiful opener in the first half of Sunday’s 4-0 pummeling of the Red Devils may tempt some to wash over the defending, but heading below the surface shows more problems.

The opener saw Richarlison score a terrific overhead kick after Dominic Calvert-Lewin flick a Lucas Digne throw-in to the back post. Beautiful, for sure, but Smalling never gets up to thwart Calvert-Lewin’s powerful jump.

Now that’s certainly just one example, but United’s slide is a feature of a few things.

Nineteen goals conceded in 17 PL matches is a clear upgrade from the 29 in 17 under Mourinho, and let’s not pretend United hasn’t been better with Solskjaer at the proverbial wheel.

Throw in a very average season from David De Gea — which in his case is far below standards — and it’s not a surprise that United is flailing away from the Top Four. The Alexis Sanchez move has been poor, Romelu Lukaku‘s form has dipped save back-to-back braces against a pair of unremarkable defenses, and Paul Pogba remains mercurial. He’s a monster of the midfield at his best, and a drifting object in the wind at his worst.

There’s a comparison to made with where Liverpool was under Brendan Rodgers somewhere, a legendary club not quite sure of how to fit its standard to its standing. Marcus Rashford needs room to grow, not constant comparison to Romelu Lukaku. There are a lot of extra pieces in the squad, the guys you like as a luxury for a great team but are either too old or too green to be reliable.

Of center backs to play in 10 or more Premier League matches this season, Phil Jones ranks 16th, Chris Smalling is 38th, and Victor Lindelof is 44th. Only 57 are ranked. Advanced stats aren’t foolproof, but they help (Jones and little-used Eric Bailly, for what it’s worth, were well-rated last season).

The club needs a big rebuild, to be sure. De Gea is a suitable goalkeeper for a team with top end ambitions, and we know that Lukaku and Pogba at their best can dominate (whether either is capable of doing it consistently under anyone is a debate).

But really, perhaps De Gea’s amazing 2017-18 and Mourinho’s defense-first system papered over something that’s been evident for some time. There’s neither a Aymeric Laporte or Toby Alderweireld at United, let alone a Virgil Van Dijk.