Manchester: Jose Mourinho has claimed Manchester United will need “almost a miracle” to finish in the top four this season and admitted Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic “do not know how to play in defence”, despite starting both midfielders there against Southampton.
Mourinho’s blunt admissions come as the United manager faces another major defensive headache ahead of a crucial clash against in-form Arsenal on Wednesday amid doubts over the availability of as many as eight defenders.
United trail Arsenal, in fourth place, by eight points and Mourinho — having previously expressed confidence that his side would be in the top four by the end of the month — now appears far more pessimistic about their prospects after successive draws with Crystal Palace and Southampton.
Asked what his aspirations were for the remainder of the season, Mourinho said: “Try to win as many points as possible and try [to achieve] almost the miracle of finishing fourth. Until last year, I said that finishing second was a fantastic thing because of the qualities we had in comparison to the quality of the other teams that are fighting for the top four. And, this year, with more problems that we have had, it proves what I said at the beginning of the season, that it would be a very difficult season.”
Mourinho chose to play McTominay and Matic in defence alongside Phil Jones — his only match-fit -centre-half — at St Mary’s. But the Portuguese suggested neither was equipped to do so in another thinly veiled critique of the club’s failure to sign the central defender he demanded in the summer.
“In the absence of more central defenders, we had to occupy that area with players who are midfielders, who do not know how to play in defence but who occupied that area in a zonal way, tried to hide the weaknesses that everyone knew we had,” he said.
Nonetheless, Mourinho could again be forced to improvise at the back against Arsenal. Jones sustained an injury against Southampton that has required a scan, left-back Luke Shaw had to come off due to injury and Ashley Young’s fifth booking of the season means the full-back will miss the Arsenal match through suspension. Sweden defender Victor Lindelof was already sidelined until Christmas.
Mourinho will hope central defenders Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling, who missed the Southampton game with back and foot problems respectively, and full-backs Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian — who were also absent — declare themselves fit.
It could mean a first Premier League start for teenage summer signing, Diogo Dalot, and a first start of the season for Marcos Rojo.
— The Telegraph Group Ltd, London