"The Times They Are a-Changin'," sang Bob Dylan. That’s certainly the case for Manchester United. After a few unconvincing seasons under David Moyes, Ryan Giggs and Louis van Gaal following Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, the Old Trafford top brass have put their eggs in Jose Mourinho’s basket as they look to reassert the club’s status as the world’s biggest.
After another summer of huge spending, the Red Devils find themselves in 6th place at Christmas - 13 points off leaders Chelsea and four off a Champions League spot. They’ve been consistently inconsistent - showing signs of life after Fergie one week then crumbling in another. Performances against Leicester and Chelsea were polarising in the extreme.
But four wins from an unbeaten eight game run, including three in a row, has given them some Christmas cheer and encouragement for a better 2017. A Boxing Day win against Sunderland would certainly add to that.
Mourinho originally tried to replicate the success of his trusted (well, until last season anyway) 4-2-3-1 at Old Trafford. They started decently enough and got results without ever looking great, but it was far from vintage United. His insistence on sticking with 4-2-3-1 also did not help world-record signing Paul Pogba. Sure, you could argue that a supposed world class player should be able to play in any system. But it’s undeniable that the way United were playing prevented their fans from seeing the best of Pogba, particularly for those who saw him at Juventus.
Then Mourinho decided to change to a 4-3-3, and United have looked a lot better since. While the defence is there to defend first and foremost - in true Mourinho fashion - the full backs are encouraged to attack and support their wingers. That’s because, like most systems seem to encourage now, the wingers are positioned more as ‘inside forwards’, looking to drive inside towards the penalty area to link up with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
United’s midfield has taken on the style of Conte and Allegri’s Juventus and Italy sides, with the slower, less mobile Michael Carrick sitting as a deep-lying regista. Mourinho was initially hesitant to play Carrick, but United have not lost since he became a regular in November. Carrick will always look to be open to receive the ball and distribute it accurately and efficiently to his more athletic teammates. Alongside him, typically, are Pogba down the left, and Ander Herrera down the right. Both tenacious and creative, the pair patrol up and down their respective sides of the pitch, linking attack with defence and creating time and space for Carrick to dictate.
At 6ft 5, Ibra is typically employed as a target man, using his strength to bring the midfielders and wingers into play. But he will also look to go in behind and create space for the attackers behind him.
United are statistically one of the best teams in the league, and the data pretty much correlates with their league position.
They’re good in possession, but we’ve always known that. They average over 54% possession and are only beaten by Manchester City for pass accuracy (84.4%). They’re also the strongest of the top teams in terms of winning aerial duels, with an average of 18.4 per game.
They’re also statistically better than than their top six rivals at winning the ball back, averaging 19.2 tackles and 18.2 interceptions per game. Only Southampton and Arsenal have blocked more passes (164) than them too.
And of course, they have a number of players, particularly in attacking situations, who can change a game in a split second. Zlatan is Zlatan - he needs no explanation. Both he and Pogba came to United with big reputations and expectations, and while the latter has yet to truly show why they spent so much on him, he has shown glimpses in recent performances and is undoubtedly improving. Then there’s Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mata, Rooney and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (injury permitting). Not a bad bunch to be able to call upon.
Besides Zlatan, United’s next highest scorers (Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata) have just three goals. If he continues to score, and his quality suggests that he probably will, then that’s not really an issue. But the Swede went six games without a goal earlier in the season, and his teammates need to step up in case he does suffer from another drought. If, and it’s a big if, Sunderland can mark Zlatan out of the game on Monday, then they’ll be forcing players not used to scoring goals (this season, at least) to break the deadlock. As a team, United have scored considerably less than the rest of the top six.
United can also find it hard to break down teams. Burnley went to Old Trafford and defended with intelligence and positional solidarity to keep them out - there’s no reason why Sunderland can’t do the same. They may dominate the ball and have more shots but their conversion of shots on target is particularly poor at just 25%. Compare this to Manchester City at 36%, Liverpool at 37% and Chelsea at 36%.
While they are statistically strong at regaining possession, United have the worst disciplinary record in the league with 42 yellows and one red card. They also concede 13.6 fouls per game, the league’s second highest total. Maybe they’ll lose their heads and give away fouls in dangerous areas if Sunderland can frustrate them.
Key Player - Zlatan Ibrahimovic
At 35, the evergreen Swede shows no signs of slowing down. The 13-time league winner (or 11 if you discount Juventus’ revoked Calciopoli scandal wins) has scored 10 goals in his last nine games and an incredible 152 in 170 since the start of 2011/2012.
Physically imposing, Ibra will be a handful for Lamine Kone and Papy Djilobodji on Boxing Day. And while he has never been blessed with blistering pace, Zlatan’s intelligence and movement could see him cause havoc between Sunderland’s lines.
A few quid on Ibra adding to his 11 goal tally is worth a shot. Just as long as Sunderland end up winning...
- Manchester United have lost just one of their last 24 top flight home games against the Black Cats, in May 2014
- Sunderland haven’t beaten United in successive top flight games since 1951
- United have won more Premier League games on Boxing Day than any other team
- Jermain Defoe has scored six times on Boxing Day in the Premier League, more than any active player in the league
- Ibrahimovic has scored 40 goals in December in the ‘top five’ leagues since 2004/2005, more than any other month
- Wayne Rooney has scored seven goals in the fixture