Mourinho’s biggest challenge: replacing Michael Carrick

Judging him on results alone, Jose Mourinho’s reign thus far at Manchester United has been one of great disappointment.

After 15 Premier League games they have 24 points and lie sixth in the table. This time last year under Louis van Gaal they were fourth with 29 points. The two seasons before that, including the aborted campaign under David Moyes, they were third with 28.

So on points alone the Mourinho era appears to be a step backwards.

Scratch beneath the surface of those results, though, and it’s clear that Mourinho is making great progress at Old Trafford in terms of both style and substance.

Performances have been steadily improving, with a direct and aggressive style that is getting the fans onside.

Several of his attacking players are in good form too. Zlatan Ibrahmovic may only be at the club for this term and probably next, but he is holding the ball up superbly and has a more than creditable 13 goals from 23 appearances.

The Spanish midfield pair of Juan Mata and Ander Herrera are applying their technique and intelligence on a consistent basis, while record signing Paul Pogba is starting to dominate opponents with his marauding, fearless play.

And after his initial struggles to get into the first team, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is now showing his full potential as a classic scheming playmaker.

It’s not all rosy up front, however. Marcus Rashford has been disappointing by the standards he set last season (although to expect more of the same is a little unfair on a clearly raw young talent), Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard have impressed only in patches, and Wayne Rooney looks a spent force, despite showing flashes of good form.

At the centre of defence things are starting to come together too. Eric Bailly has been phenomenal and looks like he could build a fruitful partnership with Chris Smalling. Phil Jones looks a more composed player since his return from injury,  Daley Blind’s consistent versatility is a great asset, and even Marcos Rojo has played well in recent weeks.

Despite that promise in the centre, major surgery is required at full-back. Doubts remain over Luke Shaw’s ability to nail down the left-back slot and at right-back Antonio Valencia is doing a decent job but a longer-term replacement is clearly required.

All that being said, the key to United’s recent improvement in recent weeks has been the renewed presence of Michael Carrick in the midfield holding role.

The early experiment with Fellaini and Pogba as holding players was always doomed to failure and Mourinho deserves credit for admitting his error and abandoning that plan after just a few games.

Fellaini does not have the technical ability to play in central midfield  (or arguably to play for United at all) and Pogba’s tendency to burst forward means he inevitably fails to keep to a tactical plan.

Carrick, though, is the perfect exponent of the holding position. Calm under pressure, technically brilliant and unswervingly disciplined, he protects the back four from being exposed on the counter-attack and gives the likes of Pogba, Herrera, Mata and Mkhitaryan the licence to roam free in areas of the pitch where they can damage opposition defences.

If he was 25 he would be ideal to build the team around. Sadly for him and his manager, though, he’s 35. And while he can probably fulfil the role with distinction for this season and possibly next, he certainly won’t be able to play there in every game.

Finding a long-term replacement for Carrick, currently the only player at the club capable of playing as a holding midfielder to the required standard, is Mourinho’s biggest long-term challenge.

While the rest of his squad is taking shape, this is the area which needs the greatest attention if United are to compete for the top prizes any time soon.

It’s no coincidence that the best holding midfielder in the Premier League, N’Golo Kante, played for last year’s champions Leicester and the leaders this season Chelsea.

It’s also no coincidence that Sergio Busquets has been an ever-present for Barcelona and Spain during the last few trophy-laden campaigns. Nor that Real Madrid are dominating La Liga with the tigerish presence of Carlos Casemiro in the centre.

If they are to dominate again, United need to find their own Kante, Busquets or Casemiro to fulfil the role on a long-term and ever-present basis.

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