5 things Manchester United must do to overhaul Manchester City next season
Manchester United’s remarkable comeback victory at Manchester City has come too late to change the result of this season’s title race, but it may just have sent a message for next season.
Thirteen points clear with six games to play, City will confirm this year’s title sooner rather than later. But victory at the Etihad will have given United at least some belief that they can soon match their rivals – even if Jose Mourinho tried to play down suggestions that the win was a psychological blow in the race for next year's title. “It was an important victory, a good victory, but I don’t see more than that,” he insisted. “This season we improved. Next season we have to improve even more.”
The question is: where must they improve?
1. Get the best out of Pogba
“I will answer another day - today before the game I will not answer.”
Pep Guardiola knew what he wanted to say, and probably knew why he shouldn't say it a day before the Manchester derby. But in the end, temptation got the better of him. “I will answer you, OK.”
The question had been about Mino Raiola – his answer was a riposte to the agent, featuring the claim that Manchester City had been offered Pogba during the January transfer window. Those comments may ultimately have played a key role in the outcome of the derby. Perhaps feeling disrespected at being used as part of Guardiola’s argument with Raiola, Pogba had been sufficiently riled to post a picture on social media, cupping his ear together with the message, ‘Say what?’
He repeated that ear-cupping gesture at the Etihad after heading home his second goal in three minutes – a contribution that turned the game in stunning fashion. They were Pogba’s best three minutes in a United shirt, and showed what he’s capable of when fired up.
Everyone knows that the Frenchman can offer much more than he has done this season – for this Manchester United side, it’s the most obvious room for improvement. They already have a hugely talented player in their midst, they just need to get the best out of him. Consistently producing the sort of performance he managed at the Etihad will go a long way to transforming United. Getting opposition managers to wind him up before every game would definitely help...
2. Play with intensity more often
United have the players to play at high intensity, but they don’t always do it often enough. The Manchester derby was a case in point: in the first 20 minutes or so, they had a respectable amount of possession but lacked the spark to do a lot with it. The tempo was too slow. Jose Mourinho revealed he’d been happy with his midfield three in the first half, but wanted more from Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard – two players who do a lot to up United’s tempo.
From the first minute of the second half, United’s intensity was completely different: they looked like a team with a point to prove. “You don’t want to be the clowns standing there, watching them get their title,” Mourinho had told his players at half-time – and it sparked them into action. Playing with gusto from the very start of the second half, they were suddenly a much bigger goal threat... and it produced a remarkable result.
When they let that intensity drop – their home loss to Sevilla arguably being the best example – United look very average. Get it right on a consistent basis, and they'll be a formidable force.
3. More goals from Alexis Sanchez
Sanchez in particular had a point to prove after snubbing City for United in January, and he was an impressive performer in the second half at the Etihad. But what he still needs to do is up his strike rate at United – he’s scored only twice in his first 12 games for the club.
Manchester City have scored goals from all areas this term – United have been more reliant on Romelu Lukaku, whose goalscoring form has gone through peaks and troughs. While City have six players who’ve scored seven or more Premier League goals, United have only three - Anthony Martial is on nine, with Lingard on eight. Mourinho will want Pogba and Marcus Rashford to join that list next term – providing Rashford gets enough game time – but Sanchez should be aiming for nearer 20.
In fact, the Chilean bagged 24 in his best ever Premier League campaign last time out (behind only Lukaku's 25 for Everton and Harry Kane of Spurs). United are going to need his goals if they’re to win the league.
4. Do better at set-pieces
Given the way that Manchester City play, no one is surprised when their possession stats are much higher than those of Manchester United. What has been a little more surprising is that they’ve done better on set-pieces too.
When Vincent Kompany headed home at the Etihad, it was the ninth set-piece goal that United had conceded in the Premier League this season. “It's the third goal we’ve conceded against Manchester City from a corner this season,” Mourinho pointed out after the game, clearly irked.
In contrast, Chris Smalling's winner was only the second set-piece goal that City have conceded all season - it’s an area where United lag behind. As a man who prides himself on defensive organisation, Mourinho will not like that. There should be no reason why United can’t at least match City from set-pieces. Sort out those issues and it will help to close the gap next term.
5. Beat Man City at Old Trafford
Manchester United have won two and drawn one of their last three Premier League visits to the Etihad, despite looking set to finish behind Manchester City in the table in each of those three seasons. Their results at the Etihad aren’t the problem: it’s at Old Trafford where they’re conceding ground, having lost at home to City in each of the last two campaigns.
United are 13 points behind City right now – had they beaten their rivals at home, rather than losing 2-1, it would have been a much tighter margin of seven points. That’s not a big gap at all considering how well City have played this term, having won 27 of 32 matches.
Mourinho's side have improved their record against the top six this season – they’ve won five, drawn one and lost three of their nine matches so far. In comparison, City have won seven, drawn none and lost two. City's record is better, but had United beaten City at home, it would be Mourinho's side with the better record.
United can’t control what City do against other opposition, but they can control those results against them at Old Trafford. Beat them at home next season and they’re six points better off straight away.