It was a harmless question about the returning Fred which prompted Jose Mourinho to head off on a tangent in his post-match press conference.
“We are not as solid as I would like,” Mourinho stressed. “We are not as rock solid as I would like, we don’t have the killer instinct I would like. Some teams with three chances score three goals and some teams without the ball can resist and keep clean sheets all the time.
“For us in this moment is almost impossible to keep a clean sheet even with the phenomenal goalkeeper we have and to score goals is really difficult for us.
“You can see in this moment, in the last nine matches – if I’m not wrong – between Rashford and Lukaku we score one goal, if I’m not wrong.”
He is not wrong. Lukaku has not scored in 800 minutes of club football and Rashford predictably fired a one-on-one straight at Jordan Pickford in the tense win over Everton. Lukaku squandered another gilt-edged chance from a Paul Pogba cross and it is just as well Anthony Martial took Mourinho’s criticism at West Ham as a compliment. He has four in three league fixtures.
Chris Smalling undid a steady 76 minutes with a ludicrous foul on Richarlison. Smalling is arguably the standout United defender of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era and Sunday was his 300th appearance for the club, which is a personal achievement for Smalling and a damning indictment on United. We have seen him do this before; he was on a yellow card in the 2014 November derby when he recklessly slid in on James Milner and was dismissed. Smalling was fortunate to avoid another expulsion at the weekend.
United have kept one clean sheet this term and that was at Burnley, who have tallied 10 in 10. Mourinho has started the same back four in the last three yet it does not have the makings of a future championship challenging quartet. Smalling malfunctions spontaneously, Ashley Young is 33 and, while Victor Lindelof has recovered encouragingly from his snub against Newcastle, the World Cup is a relevant reminder not to judge him after a short spell of form.
Mourinho would ideally reinforce the defence and attack in just over two months’ time. Ed Woodward failed his manager in the summer and Mourinho was considering a predatory striker January as United abandoned a move for the then-Bordeaux winger Malcom.
The term ‘fox-in-the-box’ was mentioned as United pondered their options before they concluded the deal for Alexis Sanchez. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, an 11-years-older Lukaku played his final game for United on Boxing Day and his re-signing always seemed destined to limit United’s attack.
Sir Alex Ferguson was the master of assembling a diverse quartet, be it Yorke, Cole, Sheringham and Solskjaer, Van Persie, Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck or even Van Nistelrooy, Rooney, Saha and Smith. The irony of Mourinho relying on two battering rams is he claimed he would never have sold Hernandez or Welbeck.
“I would never sell Di Maria, Chicharito, Danny Welbeck. Never. No chance,” Mourinho said in March 2017. “In the way we play at Old Trafford, in the way we dominate opponents, in the way we play in their box, I think Chicharito would have 20 goals easily, even coming from the bench for the last 10 or 20 minutes. He’d have 20 goals.”
Mourinho was asked why he did not make an approach for Hernandez later that summer and replied ‘because he left the club a few years ago’. If Mourinho was so intent on offsetting the effective loss of Ibrahimovic in the winter window he could have done a lot worse than the selfless Olivier Giroud, a striker in the Mourinho mould.
Although United require a more mobile option and it is high-time the scouting network unearthed a gem. The last one was Hernandez in 2010 and United need to think outside of the box if they want a fox in the box.
A centre-back has to be prioritised. Marcos Rojo was readied to replace the hurt Smalling on Sunday before he persisted while Mourinho omitted Eric Bailly and overlooked Phil Jones for the sixth game running. You do have to wonder how unavailable Jones was, given his last kick in a United shirt was that tame penalty against Derby.
Internazionale and Leicester have tied down Milan Skriniar and Harry Maguire on improved deals but Toby Alderweireld is approaching the last six months of his Tottenham contract. Spurs’ shameless chairman Daniel Levy will be under pressure to cash in in the New Year, mindful the Belgian’s automatic one-year summer extension also triggers a £25million release clause.
Tottenham have now drawn a red circle around January 13 in the calendar to open their new stadium and the visitors are, quelle surprise, United. You have to wonder whether this was the aim all along, or that it is another innovative negotiation tactic by Levy. United meet his valuation of Alderweireld, he pays the Tottenham electricians and the stadium hosts Britain’s biggest club to maximise revenue.
United drew up a long list of centre-backs in the summer but Alderweireld is attainable, provided they back the manager. In his Everton programme notes, Mourinho wrote: “I believe at the end of December we will be in a completely different position in the table.” He is planning to stick around and his employers need to be planning to back him in January.
Then United may be more solid.