José Mourinho thinks Manchester United are in a bad position in the Premier League. He should take the opportunity to have a chat with David Moyes on Sunday afternoon – the Sunderland manager would soon put him right on that score – though as a former Manchester United manager himself the Scot will know exactly what Mourinho means.
Sixth place in the table, facing a third season in four without Champions League qualification through the league and not scoring enough goals to threaten the teams above them is not a good position for Manchester United to be in.
The Europa League may yet come to the rescue but, as Mourinho admitted after the frustrating draw with Everton in midweek, his team are low on confidence and struggling to convert dominant performances into wins and points.
The same could be said of Sunday’s opponents who, like United, are indebted to a veteran striker acting virtually on his own for the goals that no one else seems able to provide. Mourinho sees parallels between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jermain Defoe and feels there is no reason why the latter should not carry on for longer at the top level. “He’s agile, his body doesn’t look like that of a thirtysomething, I think he could play at least one more season,” the United manager says.
United hope the same is true of the 35-year-old Ibrahimovic though, if the Swede does sign a contract extension at Old Trafford, he will need to be convinced that his supporting cast can chip in with more practical assistance.
Ibrahimovic is not supposed to be carrying the United attack. He is there as a figurehead, a target man, a physical presence to occupy opposing defences while players such as Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial fill their boots from his assists and knockdowns. A glance at the scoring chart shows it is not happening. Ibrahimovic leads the way with 27 in all competitions and no one else is in double figures apart from Juan Mata, who has 10 goals but is now injured.
Part of the reason why Mourinho feels United are low on confidence is that young players such as Lingard, who has just been given a new contract, and Rashford and Martial, who both emerged so excitingly last season, are now having to play every week despite clearly suffering a form of second-season syndrome.
“Everyone wants the young boys to play and everyone wants the young boys to perform,” Mourinho says. “The trouble is those two demands can be contradictory. If I didn’t have so many injuries to deal with, I would rest the young players to allow them to recover their form and confidence.
“They are all on a learning curve, they are all finding life a little more complicated than it seemed when they first broke into the team and it is difficult to win in those circumstances. But because of the injuries we have no choice but to keep playing them.”
Mourinho is aware of United’s tradition of promoting young talent and insists he is not averse, as is often suggested, to giving developing players a chance in the first team. “In my last season at Chelsea I think Ruben Loftus-Cheek got more games than he is getting at the moment, and so did Kurt Zouma,” he says. “But young players who come into the first team and are good enough to stay there forever are very rare. If that happens, it is because the player is ready and there are not many like that.
“There is a very good young player from Portugal called Renato Sanches who won the European Championship last season at 18. He is the youngest player to appear in that final but he is not always playing for Bayern Munich at the moment. It may not be his fault but I don’t think he will play in the next match and I doubt whether he will appear in the Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid.
“Bayern have other options and they have big games coming up. It is completely different if you are a mid-table team under no pressure but, if you are chasing results, it is not always easy to keep faith with young players.”
The United manager feels he needs to buy a little more time for the club’s young protégés and there are no prizes for guessing how he plans to do that. “We need to improve our squad, our football is not bad but we are very far from where I would like us to be,” he says. “I think we have been a bit unlucky this season, if we had just turned three of our draws into wins – and I know which ones – we would now be stable in the top four and playing for second or third. We have had two transfer windows and we didn’t use the second one, but there are not enough goals in the squad and we will have to do something about that in summer.”