In a season that has been littered with inconsistencies, there has been a consistent pattern to United’s results depending on the level of opposition that we encounter. United remain unbeaten against typical ‘top six’ opposition, winning three and drawing two. This is a phenomenal record, which shows a real sign of determination from the squad and manager alike in coming together and delivering a performance in the face of adversity. At the other end of the scale, United have dropped points against Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Sheffield United, Newcastle, Southampton, Crystal Palace and Wolves. There is a clear disparity in the level of teams and the outcome of results.
In last week’s fixtures against Tottenham and Manchester City, there was a clear display of character, discipline, hunger and most importantly heart, which was the driving cause for our victories. This was especially the case in the City game, where everytime we won the ball, we moved the ball from back to front at frightening speed and showed an extreme level of hunger to score in every attack.
These wins should in theory give Ole the ability to install belief into his players that they can attack the ‘smaller’ games with conviction not seen in these games this season. Then. the hope would be this extra confidence could be converted into an aggressiveness to sweep aside teams like these. However, the deficiency of being able to convert these games into wins cannot solely be blamed down to attitude and mentality. As is true in all aspects of sport, mentality must be entwined with the crucial ingredients of talent necessary to bring success.
In the games against the smaller teams, we struggle to have the creativity to break these teams down. It is advisable for any team playing us to deploy a low block and make us play in front of them. Despite being workmanlike and having great intensity, a midfield of Lingard, Fred and McTominay are unlikely to be able to unlock a packed defence and operate in tight spaces. It is an alarming weakness in our squad. Additionally, the forwards have less space to run into. In the game on Saturday against City, the amount of space our front three had to operate in was obscene. Against a team like Burnley, this space would not be there.
However, where mentality can help is with individual confidence. When Marcus Rashford is in the form he is in, he is a moment away from a display of magic and that could be enough to cut through a resolute defence. A fit and firing Anthony Martial can be a predator. But again, it is a huge reliance on form, attitude and fitness. We should rely on more than this in order to achieve consistent results in these games.
One solution is playing Paul Pogba in a more advanced position in order to provide a presence in the box and influence the game much higher up the pitch. This in turn should lead to more chances than we currently see Pereira, Lingard and Mata create at this moment in time. It is not Pogba’s ideal position, but we must best utilise him for what we need in a given game. Reinforcements are needed both up front and in midfield to allow the creation and conversion rate of chances to increase.
It is certainly a problem for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in how to get our mentality right for these games, but the last two games, plus reinforcements in January, could give us the edge and guile we require.