After a promising start to the new year for Manchester United, which included the marquee signing of Alexis Sanchez, defeats at Tottenham and Newcastle have highlighted more problems than Jose Mourinho would like to admit exist.
United’s grip on second place has weakened as they enter a crucial period of the season where they have some work to do to secure a top four finish but first they travel to Huddersfield in the FA Cup and then Sevilla in the Champions League.
There is still plenty to play for but Mourinho needs to find his best starting XI quickly in order to arrest the recent slide in performances.
He tried to fit his best attackers in against Tottenham and it left them too open and exposed. He played the same team at St. James’ Park and they faltered again.
Despite possessing the best defensive record in the Premier League, Mourinho has never enjoyed having a settled back four. The central pairing of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are certainly not the answer.
The two English defenders brought in by Alex Ferguson have been mired by inconsistency with Smalling in particular nowhere near good enough. Jones has generally had a good season but needs a more secure partner. They can barely string a couple of passes between them.
Marcos Rojo is not perfect but he should be playing. The loss of their best defender in Eric Bailly has gone under the radar and they could do with having the Ivorian back.
Mourinho also needs to make a decision on whether or not Ashley Young or Luke Shaw is his best left-back.
However, an alarming issue and major talking point has been Paul Pogba. The Frenchman was seen as crucial to United having impressed in the early part of the season but now he has been withdrawn in his last two away games.
There is much debate on Pogba’s best position with many struggling to find it. The answer is simple, it is on the left of midfield in a 4-3-3 system. He excelled there at Juventus and showed on New Year’s Day against Everton he can influence games there for United.
However, he has been predominantly deployed in a midfield two alongside Nemanja Matic in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Mourinho stubbornly sticks to. The Special One will never get the best out of a potentially fantastic player if he persists playing him there.
Pogba needs to be freed from the defensive responsibilities and played further up the pitch. Of course, that would mean Mourinho would have to sacrifice at attacking player.
It would not be Alexis Sanchez or Romelu Lukaku nor should it be Anthony Martial, but he needs to tweak things somehow because it is clearly not working at the moment.
Mourinho finding his best back four and putting Pogba in his best position is crucial to United having a successful season.