Manchester United have one of the finest defensive records in Europe this season, having only conceded 14 league goals.
Who are the only better team in the Premier League? Unsurprisingly, given how this season is panning out, it’s Manchester City (12), while Chelsea have also conceded just 14.
Jose Mourinho has certainly improved Man United’s backline, but there are signs of huge improvements still needed defensively for the Portuguese to tackle.
One of them is the fault of the manager entirely. That weakness in United’s game being a habit of defending far too deeply once gaining a lead in games.
The second area of improvement is one that cannot be dealt with in the short-term: a lack of leadership.
Mourinho has improved United’s defence with the signings of Eric Bailly in his first summer, for around £30 from Villarreal, and Victor Lindelof in his second, for just over £30m from Benfica.
That has helped, of course, but there is a long way to go. Saturday evening’s 2-2 draw against Leicester City was a perfect example of United’s defensive vulnerabilities, as well as being an example of why Mourinho won’t guide the Reds to the title in his second season in charge.
Chris Smalling suffered a knock in the last 10 minutes of the game at the King Power Stadium, but stayed on with no substitutes remaining for Mourinho and United. His centre-back partner Phil Jones attempted to re-organise United, instructing Ander Herrera to move to right-back as Victor Lindelof shifted into a central position alongside Jones.
Herrera seemingly refused, and told Henrikh Mkhitaryan to play at right-back instead. Smalling eventually went off with his injury, but came back on soon after, was told to mark one of the most threatening Leicester players from set pieces, Harry Maguire, and let the Englishman score an equaliser.
That goal from Maguire leaves United 13 points behind title rivals Man City. It’s hugely costly in a game that should have been won comfortably. Simple chances missed by Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Mkhitaryan cannot be forgotten, but the shambles at the back will certainly be remembered.
It was just that: shambolic. Gary Neville, speaking on his Sky Sports podcast, said: “You can’t believe the disorganisation and lack of leadership shown by Manchester United at the end of that game in a game they should have won. Jose will be furious when he watches that back.”
United have no leaders. Paul Pogba was captain in the absence of both Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia. He should be future captain of the club, but where was he in this? Why was he not ensuring Herrera followed Jones’ instructions?
It was a collection of fatal errors for United. Smalling, clearly injured and unable to move freely, should never have been let back onto the pitch by Mourinho. But once he was, he shouldn’t have been left marking a huge threat in Maguire. He first played him onside, and then didn’t stop him from striking past David de Gea.
United need to sort out their leadership issue, because there is no obvious figure in the current group who is responsible for being the on-pitch boss when it comes to situations like this late on in a game.
Meanwhile, Mourinho has got to stop sitting so deep when United are comfortably running games. Leicester weren’t in the game at all until Mourinho told his players to drop deeper, stop counter-attacking in such numbers.
The team were 2-1 up, and a man up, and yet sat back. Marcus Rashford, who came on as a substitute, had a chance to break free in a great situation, but held the ball up ponderously instead and eventually lost it.
Dropping so deep simply invites other teams on, and many United fans felt Leicester’s eventual equaliser was inevitable. It’s happened before this season, and it will happen again if it doesn’t change. It’s going to have to if United are going to even keep up with City.