Defeat to Brighton on Friday night has left Manchester United with an unwanted record – they are now the only team to have lost to all three promoted teams this season.
The latest embarrassment proved United are in need of a summer clear-out if they hope to challenge rivals Manchester City next season.
Manager Jose Mourinho made several changes to the team that beat Arsenal last week, with Marouane Fellaini, Matteo Darmian, Anthony Martial, Marcos Rojo and Marcus Rashford given an opportunity to stake a claim for the FA Cup final starting XI.
The result left Mourinho fuming. And all talk since has been over a potential summer clearout – with a number of players named in the starting lineup at the Amex leading the list. Jose Mourinho has attempted to put his stamp on the squad over the past two seasons, yet it’s the players signed before he arrived that appear to be the issue.
The players in question were lacklustre throughout. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial attempted to feed off scraps as Juan Mata failed to create any real goal-scoring opportunities. Marouane Fellaini played deeper and deeper until he was eventually on-top of Nemanja Matic, while Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian were left chasing at the heels of Brighton’s wingers Anthony Knockaert and Jose Izquierdo.
Martial’s performance could be blamed on a lack of match practice since the arrival of Alexis Sanchez. Martial had scored three goals in three games prior to being switched to the right hand side to accommodate the Chilean, but frustratingly, Martial demonstrates his ability on the ball far too little and appears almost disinterested at times.
Yet when he runs at defences, he becomes one of the most dangerous men on the pitch. He blows hot and cold, and it could be this inconsistency that sees him leave Old Trafford this summer. He’s certainly been linked strongly enough with a move away, with the likes of Tottenham, Chelsea, Juventus and Arsenal all ready to swoop in.
Marcus Rashford was deployed as a central striker in the absence of Lukaku and while he had often played there previously, he has found himself used much more commonly as a wide attacker. He looked hesitant on the ball on Friday night, and spurned his one chance to play Martial in following a decent run down the right.
Rashford is unlikely to leave, but there have been calls in the media for him to seek more playing time elsewhere to further his England prospects.
United’s midfield are another area where improvements have been made by Mourinho, with Nemanja Matic consistently one of United’s top performers. Yet the introduction of Fellaini next to him – in what was only his second PL start since September – saw United’s midfield become congested.
Fellaini has impressed when used as a target man for United to change their approach tactically, but on the ball he tends to give away possession too easily. Would he be named in a Pep Guardiola team? Absolutely not.
Defensively, United have been more solid that it may appear this season. Despite the unexpected defeats at the hands of the promoted teams, they have the league’s second best defence. However the Brighton match provided another timely reminder of how crucial David De Gea has been to United.
Darmian and Rojo were incredibly far off the pace. The former looks a near certainty to leave, and the ageing duo of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia will likely see United reinforce those areas when the transfer window opens.
Rojo, returning from a long lay-off due to a knee injury, is likely to remain in Mourinho’s plans for next season having proved himself a valuable squad member – however it looks like his recovery is far from complete yet, as he was run ragged by Brighton’s attackers.
The argument can be made for all these players that they have suffered through a lack of matches under Mourinho, yet in order for a team to challenge at the highest level – in the Champions League and Premier League for example – is reliant on these fringe players being good enough and motivated enough to provide the manager with a selection headache when they are picked.
Even with the knowledge they were playing for places in an FA Cup final, those players were clearly not motivated or good enough on the night. Some of them may have blown their last chance to remain a United player beyond the summer, let alone their chance to start in a cup final.