ODESSA, Ukraine — Three points from Man United’s 2-0 win at Zorya Luhansk to wrap up their Europa League group stage campaign…
1. Man United must use Thursday’s win to kickstart season
Manchester United now have two months to get their season back on track without the distraction of Thursday night football in the Europa League, having cemented their place in the Round of 32 with a 2-0 win. Henrikh Mkhitaryan opened the scoring with a driving run and clever bit of skill before coolly slotting beyond goalkeeper Igor Levchenko; Zlatan Ibrahimovic sealed things late with a calm finish after a superb pass by Paul Pogba.
But if their season is to start now, it must begin with a victory at home to Tottenham on Sunday, though it’s a pity their preparations for that game have been so disrupted.
Playing on a terrible pitch in bitterly cold Odessa is one thing, but flying back to Manchester and landing at 2 a.m. on Friday morning following a 3,000 mile journey from Ukraine is another. By the time they touch down in Manchester, they will be just 60 hours from kickoff against Spurs and many of Jose Mourinho’s players will be nursing knocks from this bruising encounter with Zorya Luhansk.
Eric Bailly played on for 20 minutes despite going down heavily and receiving treatment in his first game back following a knee ligament injury, while Paul Pogba also found himself on the wrong end of some robust challenges. Meanwhile Mourinho left Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia back in Manchester ahead of the Spurs game, with Phil Jones also sitting Thursday’s game out, but it will be difficult for the manager to inject some freshness into his team.
United can at least look forward to resuming their Europa League campaign in February having ended their woeful run in Europe by defeating Zorya. And if there is one positive from their trip to eastern Europe, it is that they have won away for the first time since defeating Club Brugge in August 2015.
Any win boosts confidence, it’s often said, so this may provide a much-needed lift ahead of the crucial clash with Spurs.
2. Man United struggling for pace
Jose Mourinho has several tweaks to make to his Manchester United team before he can be happy with the make-up of his squad and one issue — a lack of pace — was evident against Zorya.
United are too pedestrian without the youthful energy of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, especially in attacking positions and it showed against the Ukrainian outfit. Mourinho’s problem is that neither Rashford nor Martial have done enough this season to even warrant a regular starting position.
There have been flashes of quality from the two highly rated youngsters, but both would admit to failing to produce the form that saw them burst onto the scene at Old Trafford last season. When neither is involved, however, United become too predictable.
Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Henrikh Mkhitaryan all possess the vision to find a killer pass but they cannot hurt opponents with their lack of pace. Further forward, Zlatan Ibrahimovic now plays with his back to goal because he is unable to escape defenders; it allows the likes of Zorya to easily stifle United due to their knowledge that speed will not be a concern.
Against better teams in the Premier League, United are finding it increasingly difficult to break down opponents because without legs in the team that can escape their markers, it all becomes so routine.
3. Rooney needs to get involved
Wayne Rooney will equal and then eclipse Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time goal-scoring record at Manchester United at some point, but if he is to do it sooner rather than later, the 31-year-old needs to start getting himself in the heart of the action once again.
The United and England captain has now scored just four goals since February and hasn’t hit the back of the net in the Premier League since the opening day of this season against Bournemouth. His problem is that he is no longer even putting himself in the position to miss chances: his first thought, more often than not, is to drift away from the ball rather than chase it or demand it.
Taking corners is not ideal for his goal tally (although he has now done that for a while) but surely a goal scorer of Rooney’s calibre should demand to be in the penalty box on the receiving end rather than taking them?
In recent weeks, it has become noticeable how often Rooney will play the ball backwards or make a safe pass before standing and watching as it is played forward. The days of Rooney laying the ball off, racing into the penalty area and demanding it back are long gone.
Perhaps he is still suffering a hangover from Louis van Gaal’s time in charge, when United’s painfully slow possession game left him starved of chances. But he now lacks the bite and determination to get on the end of chances and he is beginning to stumble toward Charlton’s record rather than blow it away.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_