Manchester United ended up on the losing side of a cup final for the first time in close to 14 months—after an inspired performance from Real Madrid ensured their fourth Super Cup win and a remarkable second back-to-back trophy under Frenchman Zinedine Zidane.
Even though the result was always under the control of the Spanish and European champions on a sweltering hot evening in Skopje, thanks to a battle comfortably won in the wide areas, the Red Devils produced a much improved display for most of the second half, aided by a formation change almost enabling United to claw their way back into what once seemed a lost cause.
As is always the case, the performance from United in various phases of that game raised a few important questions and offered some clues—if you like—ahead of the new season which starts Sunday at Old Trafford against a West Ham United side spearheaded by an all too familiar face.
1. Mourinho is right in thinking United need a left-sided attacking midfielder/winger
United lacked purpose for the majority of that first half after a bright start. Although it was largely down to the brilliance of Real Madrid in terms of the positioning, speed, and precision with which they moved the ball across midfield and out wide often pinning United’s full-backs and wingers well into their own half, it’s safe to say that if there was a serious gulf in class between both the sides, it was most apparent down the flanks; particularly on the left-hand side where Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard struggled to get a grip on the game.
The fact that United, after conceding early in the second half, picked themselves up enough to enjoy a dominant period for the better part of the remainder of the match may not be coincidence, given the introduction of Marcus Rashford and the change of system to a more familiar back four.
But the reality is, besides Anthony Martial—who was an unused substitute on the day, another fairly contentious decision made by Mourinho with regard to team selection—United are short of genuine quality on the ball to cause problems down that side. Incidentally, it was Martial’s quick feet and willingness to take men on in the friendly against Real Madrid that saw him set up Jesse Lingard’s goal, a solo effort that stood out in an otherwise ordinary pre-season. There was none of that on Tuesday, however.
With the pursuit of Ivan Perisic coming to an abrupt halt, Ed Woodward should be doing whatever he can to work his way through bringing a left-sided attacking player that Mourinho is desperate to add to his squad and rightly so.
2. Nemanja Matic could emerge as United’s most important player this season
There were a few positives in this defeat; Romelu Lukaku getting back to scoring ways for instance, but none more encouraging than Nemanja Matic’s measured performance following a pre-season with his new club that lasted just over 45 minutes.
The settling in period is often tricky with new signings but with the 29-year old—who’s proven in the league, having won it twice with a thorough understanding of what Mourinho demands of his players in different situations—it could not get any better for Manchester United, as transfers go.
The Serb was United’s best player by a mile – with 5 defensive actions and 50 passes completed in his competitive debut against a higher quality side, and the more he gets to know his colleagues, the better, particularly for the likes of Pogba and Mkhitaryan who could directly benefit from playing ahead of the former Chelsea midfielder, in which case their efforts could be concentrated further forward, in the business end of the pitch.
3. New season, same old problems?
United’s primary issue in the last three campaigns has been scoring goals. Despite Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s reasonably prolific campaign with 17 goals in the league and 28 in total, the supporting cast failed to add enough to propel United any higher than they finished last season.
Lack of goals also saw the Red Devils draw far too many games in the league, and especially at Old Trafford, where they drew more games than they won. On Tuesday, a similar pattern emerged where United missed some clear-cut chances in crucial moments (i.e. Lukaku and Rashford squandering an opportunity each). Had one of those gone in, we may be talking about a different result here. Games are decided by these fine margins.
But the shot quality of Real Madrid and Manchester United were certainly comparable—which is rather reflective of United’s improvement in general. It suggests the Red Devils have used the ball almost as effectively, if not more than Zinedine Zidane’s all-conquering Real Madrid—with a set of players not nearly as experienced at the highest level.
All in all, Manchester United are taking shots from dangerous areas where the likelihood of scoring is higher under Mourinho, which is always a positive, but the conversion rate needs to go up a notch if they want to score anywhere near the amount of goals they would require to mount a strong push for the title.