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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 16 vs. Manchester United

Manchester United v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

In a game that really saw Leicester struggle mightily to get out of first gear, it was quite disappointing to see Fulham only take a draw from last Wednesday’s fixture at Craven Cottage instead of a comfortable win. But as has been the case all season, the defense can be blamed as much as it wants, but if the attack can’t be able to prop this football club towards respectability, finishing 20th in the table is what it deserves. They will need to find that endeavor and then some against a Manchester United side that is begging to reach their normal standards again.

When you’re used to having complete stability at manager and winning 24 major trophies in that man’s tenure, surely not reaching those same heights in the five years afterwards has got to be flat out miserable. Jose Mourinho was supposed to be the perfect successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, but instead he has brought turmoil and chaos throughout the entire senior squad and the remainders of a once impenetrable football club. Now they are struggling to claim a spot within the Premier League’s top six, lack a cohesive policy for every transfer window, and struggle mightily to have a playing system match with the players that are within Mourinho’s disposal. Did I mention Manchester United finished second last year?

But that’s the nature of the Premier League. If everyone is so used to you reaching such a tier of success, anything worse than that is considered a complete failure and those criticisms will never go away until you reach those exact same heights again. That’s what Liverpool been dealing with since their last league title back in 1990 and it’s what United have been dealing with since 2013.

In some ways though, there is plenty to blame for United’s failures. The club have constantly splashed plenty of cash on players either well past their primes, or predictably unable to fit in with the rest of the squad at a much higher rate than when Sir Alex Ferguson took charge, that it has stymied any positive progress the club could have for its future, otherwise.

Now surely, Fulham couldn’t care less about dealing with United’s problems. Although United have shockingly conceded more shots than they have generated themselves, the traveling squad will know that they will be up against some of the best players in the world when they are at their best. The positive spin for Fulham is that United’s best might not be able to blossom at all if things go their way.

But they will have to find a way to score much more at will without the help of Aleksander Mitrovic. Surely, Calum Chambers can’t be Fulham’s second or third best option in attack. It was great to see Aboubakar Kamara score, but more will be required of him and the rest of his teammates if they are to be able to stave off relegation, let alone tomorrow’s fixture at Old Trafford.

On that note, let’s look at three of United’s best players.

Anthony Martial

All data from whoscored.com

If this were as early as 2016, Romelu Lukaku easily is considered Manchester United’s best goal scorer. Nowaday’s I’m not even sure that’s true anymore as Martial is finally living up to the world class potential he had since arriving from Monaco as an 18-year old. After coming out of Mourinho’s dog house, or whatever you called that mess of a saga between the two, Martial was finally given playing time and has answered with seven goals off of just 18 shots. Now 12 of those shots have gone towards goal, but those are such comical rates that surely his numbers will drop. Even Understat has Martial only racking up 3.55 expected goals.

Still, it just feels like all United needed to do was play this kid and he was going to be fine. In typical Jose Mourinho fashion, he had to be begrudgingly convinced that he was good enough to play for his team. Now if he could ever become a volume shooter like all elite attackers are, watch out!

Paul Pogba

All data from whoscored.com

Next up is the most scrutinized player in the Premier League. But sadly, Paul Pogba’s underlying numbers justify his criticisms. That said, when you only have Marouane Fellaini and an aging Nemanja Matic flanking you every match day, why wouldn’t his performances be expected to drop. Simply put, United have stacked so much talent up front that they have forgotten to invest in the rest of the senior squad. And when Manchester United don’t have the ball, they are in complete trouble as they don’t have the horses to develop a strong pressing game.

Pogba at his best is willing to join in on defensive duties, but he needs better teammates around him to collect the ball for him. Matic was supposed to be the answer, but that hasn’t happened at all. Fellaini is basically a fluke goal scorer at his best and a belligerent aerial winner at minimum. Ander Herrera can put in good shifts, but there’s nothing special about him to ever become “Man United” good. So that’s the quandary with Paul Pogba. He should be good enough to do everything well on his own, but his skillset requires others to help him out too.

David De Gea

Finally, just like how things were with Chelsea, Manchester United’s back four just isn’t good enough to be a Champions League qualifier every year. Chris Smalling is amazingly about to turn 30 soon and never reached the heights of a consistent starter for a top six club. Victor Lindelof is injured and either hasn’t settled in beforehand or is stuck in Mourinho’s doghouse too. The exact same can be said of Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo.

At fullback, Luke Shaw finally looked like he was living up to his billing only for him to get injured again while Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia’s are aging wide forwards in disguise. Simply put, this ain’t the Neville brothers, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic. In fact, it will be a miracle if any of the current iteration will ever deserve to be compared to the past greats. That’s where David De Gea comes in, regardless if this season has been a downgrade for him.

Plain and simple, United had no business being the second best team in England last season, but if it weren’t for De Gea’s goalkeeping, United might not even have made it to this season’s Champions League. That’s why Real Madrid time and again come calling for him and United have had to constantly say “Not for sale”. He has been that invaluable to the club in the post-Ferguson era and my goodness who knows how poor this club’s rebuild would be if Spain’s number one were to leave.