Just before the festive period, Manchester United posted a piece on their own website about how they were the Premier League club with the least rest over the coming weeks.
If that sounds like an extreme case of a club moaning about their luck, that’s because it is. United, as an institution, took to the largest platform available to them simply to whine about too many games.
It’s not a great look, but it is true: United had the least rest of any club over this schedule of festive fixtures. You don’t have to feel any form of real sympathy for them, but you can’t change the facts either. Nor can Manchester United.
What they probably could have changed, however, was their overreliance on certain players. As Mourinho put it in his press conference ahead of the game with Southampton this weekend, he has to be ‘grateful’ to Romelu Lukaku for playing 20 Premier League matches this season. The Belgian striker is overworked, perhaps, though his contribution has certainly waned: he has scored just four goals in all competitions since September. Goalless in his last three games, it looks like he could be starting off on another drought.
He’s not the only player Mourinho ought to be grateful to. Although the Portuguese coach broached the topic of other players who may have played as much football as the Belgian, stating somewhat oddly that when you’re a midfielder or a defender you can often control your exertion a bit more, it’s also true that Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic have also played their fair share when they’ve both been fit and well. Lukaku has played every minute, the same as David de Gea, but there are nine United players who have played over 1000 minutes so far.
And so the dreaded combination has actually happened for United. They have overworked some of their players over the course of the autumn – partly because of injuries to players like Eric Bailly, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick, which have limited their ability to rotate – and partly because of Mourinho’s old-fashioned approach to rotation, setting up his best team and sticking to it. And when the festive period came around, they’ve been left in trouble. Amplified, perhaps, by less rest than the rest of the league, but we’re talking hours here, not days or weeks.
They do have a real problem, though. Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku all played 90 minutes against both Leicester City and Burnley, whilst Juan Mata started both and was given only seven minutes rest, being taken off against Leicester just before the end. Marcus Rashford, and Jesse Lingard, too, played in both games, though both should be able to play two games in a row at least and neither should be as tired as those mentioned above – neither should David de Gea, though he too has played the full 90 in both festive fixtures.
The pertinence of this is not to say that Mourinho should be absolved of poor performances because of fixture congestion – he’s brought the pain upon himself in many ways. And Saturday’s game against Southampton will not be the most important one, either. If United’s team at home to Saints is a strong one, just how tired will those important players be when it comes to playing just 48 hours later away to Everton?
Travelling to face the Toffees will bring its own challenges, too, and it’s the kind of game United will need to be on top form to win. Or at least good physical form. Unbeaten under new manager Sam Allardyce, Everton are now a robust and physical defensive unit in a way they simply haven’t been for most of this year, and their five clean sheets in seven, with only two goals conceded tells you everything you need to know. Indeed, it’s not like they’ve played terrible teams either – they kept a clean sheet against Chelsea, and drew 1-1 with Liverpool. They even beat Huddersfield, which United fans will know isn’t a particularly easy task.
Now is the time when Jose Mourinho needs his squad more than ever, but it’s also where we see the problems within it. He has overworked some of his key players, and whether that’s to do with poor squad management or a lack of trust in some of players who will need to be shipped out and replaced, we don’t know.
But we do know this isn’t a new problem for Mourinho.
Last season he all but threw the Premier League in order to compete in Europe, win some silverware and qualify for the Champions League. All the while he complained about tiredness and too many games. That might be a legitimate tactic given the context of last season, but it’s also something he looks to be doing again this season. It was a problem in his final full season as Chelsea boss, too, when one of the many reasons for that team’s decline was overwork – you could practically name the XI who were going to start every week, and there was little rotation there, too.
You can’t do this every year. At some point, you surely have to announce that you’ve built the squad that you’ve been trying to assemble for well over a year and state that you’re going to try to win trophies.
There is no doubt that Manchester United have a fixture pile-up, and so does every other team. United, however, are in the most difficult position thanks to injuries and their overreliance on some key players. And they only have one man to blame.
Mourinho is simply doing what he’s always done.
There have been 534 goals scored in the 199 Premier League matches played so far this season. That, dear friends, is an average of 2.68 per game. This is one of the reasons we have selected a bumper +1.5 goals coupon with excellent LeoVegas odds for this Saturday. Check out our reasoning—plus an absolute winner of an EFL outright win fourfold—in the latest Accy Show!