As November draws to a close, the true identities of Premier League clubs have begun to shine through. At the top of the table, Manchester City are an offensive juggernaut capable of ripping apart any team unfortunate enough to cross their path. Conversely, Crystal Palace‘s horrendous start has hardly improved. Nothing short of a miracle will keep them in the Premier League now.
Manchester United have gone through a tumultuous time the last two months. A string of injuries to key players has left Jose Mourinho unable to put out a consistent starting eleven. Additionally, the disappearance of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and lack of goals from Romelu Lukaku resulted in a string of coma-inducing performances. Mourinho’s proficiency as a manager was seriously questioned over this period.
However, the Red Devils are starting to turn the corner. Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo have all returned from injury. Despite injuries, the defence has conceded just six goals all season – the best record in the Premier League. The busiest month of the season approaches and is sure to put Mourinho’s squad to the test. This is Manchester United’s December preview.
Manchester United December Preview
Arsenal vs Manchester United – 12/02/2017
The first game of the month sees Manchester United travel to the Emirates. The Red Devils sit just four points ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League table – a win will provide some much-needed breathing room among the Champions League hopefuls. However, United have won just one of their last five matches against the Gunners – scoring a meagre five goals in those games. Mourinho’s rivalry with Arsene Wenger is well documented and the Portuguese will be looking to make a statement in North London.
Manchester United vs CSKA Moscow – 12/05/2017
The Red Devils are yet to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League. A favourable group should have seen them already moving on. Instead, they still require a point on match-week six in order to top the group without relying on goal difference. Moreover, CSKA Moscow will be coming to Old Trafford ready to attack. They currently sit third in Group A, however nine points has them on the brink of qualification.
Mourinho would surely have seen this match as an opportunity to rest players prior to the Manchester derby. However, failure to progress in the Champions League would certainly put the Portuguese’s job on the line. Given his love affair with Europe’s elite competition, expect a strong lineup from Manchester United on this day.
Manchester United vs Manchester City – 12/10/2017
The match that all Premier League fans will have been waiting for. Goliath versus Goliath atop the Premier League. Pep Guardiola has Manchester City playing some of the best football the Premier League has ever seen. An astounding output of 40 goals from 12 Premier League matches sees the Citizens eight points clear at the top of the Premier League.
The other side of the coin sees Manchester United with the best defensive record in the Premier League. They are rapidly developing a reputation for absorbing attacks and dismantling teams as they take risks beyond the 80th minute. Mourinho has won just four of 19 matches in his history against Guardiola. He would love to be the one who undoes Manchester City’s nearly perfect season. If the Red Devil’s are unable to get all three points at Old Trafford, it may be the final blow to their title hopes.
Depth Will Be Tested
Manchester United will play nine games in 31 days over December (and New Year’s day). Their lacklustre form throughout October and November leaves their margin for error at slim to none in December. Such a gruelling schedule will require frequent rotation of the starting eleven – which is where United’s weaknesses lie.
The Red Devils have noticeably struggled for width this season in matches without Antonio Valencia. Ashley Young has provided adequate fullback play, however, is currently the number one left back and will likely require a rest. Matteo Darmian, while solid defensively, provides no support going forward. Daley Blind’s lack of pace has been exposed this season and Luke Shaw, while the best option, seems unable to crack the squad.
Paul Pogba recovering from injury marks the return of Manchester United’s heartbeat. The Frenchman has been sensational since his return. The Red Devils desperately missed his passing range, physicality and creativity. However Pogba has played the full 90 minutes just once since returning, and a strenuous schedule won’t aid his recovery. When Pogba is rested the void will likely be filled by Ander Herrera or Henrikh Mkhitaryan – who seem shadows of their former selves.
While Manchester United have numerous attacking options, they do not all fit a common system. The lack of goals from Romelu Lukaku has begun to affect his overall performance, meaning Zlatan Ibrahimovic will likely force his way into the starting eleven. The Swede’s presence demands that he be surrounded by pacey wingers – Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. This, however, would leave Mourinho without creative wingers on the bench. Jesse Lingard may work hard, however, is more a tool in the belt than a weapon on the battlefield. Additionally, Juan Mata has further lost a step of speed. He should strictly play centrally.
The Last Word
However Mourinho decides to manage his team through the holiday period, they will certainly be resolute defensively. Yet if Manchester United’s role players are unable to make the difference between drawing and winning, changes will certainly need to be made in the fast approaching January transfer window.