|The cast of the Saturday lunchtime brawl at Old Trafford|
Now, this is by no means an obituary for a Champions League finish. Indeed, United could still end up as far high as second place this season. Such is the frustratingly generous nature of the campaign. In fact, take the 14 points United have dropped at home in draws against lower league opposition that we should have won and you have yourself a title challenge!
It is at that point that Jose Mourinho's progress at Manchester United can be identified. The club is not far away from a league title and yet the fault margins are ever crucial in this unforgiving of all leagues. Fault margins, eh? At United, there's essentially one: Goals.
Of all the problems you can have as a football team, this is perhaps the most damning one! Goals win games. It's little wonder then that in the middle of March, United can only count 13 premier league wins this season. That equates to a base average of 2 league wins a month in the season so far. That is only as good as any upper mid-table form as you can find anywhere. The maths simply points to 6th place. United are therefore not handicapped by any laws of science in their bid to push up the table.
Identifying United's need for goals can be quite the irony especially when they boast a statistically prolific goal-getter in Zlatan Ibrahimovic. At 26 goals so far, there is every reason to believe that United will end up with a 30 goal striker fro the first time since Sir Ale Ferguson hung up his chewing gum.
And yet, beyond Zlatan, the numbers dwindle. Owing to a variety of options in the 3 behind the striker, Mourinho is yet to identify his first choice front three, or at least a very reliable trio. The uncertainty of combinations in midfield has accounted for a distinct failure to get the best from club's prize asset, Paul Pogba. Todate, it is difficult to say whether the Frenchman is or is not operating at excess capacity. Often times there seems a confusion among fans as to whether he has been asked to sit deep or to influence play ahead of him. His overall numbers suggest he definitely gets about and whilst he cannot be faulted for the transfer fee, it has been the subject of media scrutiny when the club under-performs.
Even so, his contribution at Manchester United wouldn't be such a bother if United's midfielders were generally contributing more goals. Juan Mata is arguably United's best midfield finisher whilst Mkhitaryan's numbers have suffered because of a lengthy time to settle into the club and most recently injury. Anthony Martial flourished as the team's focal point of attack last year but has found it a little harder wide left. As such, United are yet to find a solution to a problem whose roots date back to the latter years of Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure.
To score 5 goals from 130-something shots suggests a problem that needs more than merely Antoine Griezmann to solve. There has to be a greater responsibility from the supporting cast to put away chances from midfield.
United have a big game player in Zlatan Ibrahimovic to emerge in the absolutely big games as a goal threat. Ironically, what they are lacking is a common finisher who gobbles up chances against the lesser weights of the league. The kind whom social media will quickly rubbish because he scores against supposedly weaker sides. Only then can the club claim a balance in the attacking third of the pitch.
At the moment, it appears United are trying so hard to finish the most basic of chances. Akin to the kid who failed a cheap test because he only prepared for the most difficult of tests. An over-qualified approach to the most basic of problems. Perhaps a sixth sense?