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Man United's biggest problem? Mourinho's men have no fear factor

Man United's biggest problem? Mourinho's men have no fear factor



Every Sunday during the Premier League season. ESPN FC brings you its Team of the Weekend, featuring 11 star performers -- plus a manager -- as chosen by our panel of experts.

Do you agree or disagree with the latest line-up? You can have your say in the comments section at the foot of this article or on Twitter, using the hashtag #ESPNFCTOTW.

Goalkeeper: As debuts go, this was quite something. Playing for an out-of-form team at home to Manchester United proved no problem for Newcastle's Martin Dubravka, who made himself an instant hero in a 1-0 win. He tipped away a deflected Alexis Sanchez shot, made a great stop to thwart Anthony Martial and blocked a Michael Carrick flick in the closing seconds. Gab Marcotti says he "stood tall," Steve Nicol praises "a brilliant display" and Paul Mariner purrs: "What a great signing." A unanimous choice by our panellists.

Defence: Tottenham produced a fine performance to see off North London rivals Arsenal at Wembley, dominating the second half as they kept the Gunners quiet and created a bundle of chances. Nobody embodied their solidity better than Jan Vertonghen, who nullified Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and his attacking colleagues, winning a succession of headers and challenges and bringing the ball stylishly out of defence at every opportunity. Nicol hails his "immaculate performance" and Mariner adds: "He looks classier with every game."

Defence: The outstanding Newcastle were outstandingly marshalled by captain Jamaal Lascelles, who was in the right place whenever Man United turned up the heat and constantly directed and encouraged his colleagues. Lascelles put his body on the line time and again, blocking shots and making a collection of crucial clearances as the crosses came flying in. "Led by example and saw off everything that United threw at him," says Mariner, while Marcotti is impressed by Lascelles' "yeoman effort under tremendous pressure."

Defence: Earlier in the season, you wouldn't have found many people offering much praise to the West Ham defence. But since the arrival of David Moyes they have looked like a pretty good unit, and Angelo Ogbonna excelled at the heart of it with a dominant display in the win over Watford. He had the upper hand against no-nonsense Troy Deeney and read the game superbly, always alive to the danger posed by the visitors on the counter. "Perfectly at home in Moyes' back three, he led the way to shutting out Watford," says Marcotti.

Midfield: Brighton have found goals and results hard to come by away, striking only seven times on their travels, but all that could change if Jose Izquierdo keeps playing as he did in the draw at Stoke. Skilful, direct and always looking to put his team on the front foot, he fired Brighton ahead -- his second goal in as many games -- had a couple of other good efforts and kept Stoke thinking with his trickery. Nicol describes his goal, which rounded off some fluent team play, as "the move of the weekend" and that's a verdict Mariner echoes.

Midfield: There has been so much to enjoy about Manchester City this season, but arguably nothing quite so much as the brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne. He surpassed even his own standards vs. Leicester with a dazzling array of assists, starting with a cross that laid on the opener for Raheem Sterling and then helping Sergio Aguero go to town. This is what people mean when they say someone is unplayable. Nicol says: "The guy is frightening," Mariner opts for "a masterclass" and Marcotti shrugs: "Just the three assists today."

Midfield: Back in the season's early days, Huddersfield were busy getting off to a dream start and Aaron Mooy was making them tick. Then came a slump but, against Bournemouth, it was as though the clock had gone back. Bright and purposeful, the Terriers were driven on by Mooy, whose all-action approach, defensive nous, range of passing and ability to get into dangerous positions were far too much for Bournemouth to handle. "The straw that stirs David Wagner's drink," says Marcotti. "Always ready defensively, always intelligent on the ball."

Midfield: Things are looking up at West Ham, with manager Moyes feeling confident enough to target a top-10 finish and the revitalised Marko Arnatovic leading the way. Sharp runs, neat passes and clever touches were abundant vs. Watford and he scored his seventh goal in 10 games to wrap up the result. "Where have these performances come from?" wonders Nicol, Mariner praises him as "powerful, tricky, a constant threat" and Marcotti says: "When he turns it on, he's close to unplayable. The trick is getting him switched on regularly."

Forward: "He deserves all the credit," said Pep Guardiola of Sergio Aguero, but even that doesn't seem enough after the four-goal striker destroyed Leicester to take his league tally for the season to 21 in 22 games. One minute Leicester were still in the game, the next Aguero had ripped it away from them. "Crazy thing is, it's not the first time he has bagged four in a single Premier League game," Marcotti points out, while Nicol wonders: "What can you say?" and Mariner adds: "Scoring all types of goals, he is a true predator."

Forward: As we have been saying, Huddersfield have had a tough time of it but you wouldn't have known that on Sunday as Steve Mounie showed quality with the double strike that put them back on the winning road. He slotted home to boost morale and restore the lead after Bournemouth had grabbed an equaliser, then headed another and never stopped chasing and harrying, leaving an admiring Nicol to describe his contribution as "vital" and Marcotti noting: "This was massive for Huddersfield. If they stay up, they owe him a lot."

Forward: Jurgen Klopp was full of praise for Roberto Firmino after his side's stroll at Southampton and who can blame him? Firmino set the tone after only six minutes when he swept home the opener from Mohamed Salah's cross and returned the compliment with a beautiful backheeled assist for Salah to get the second. For the rest of the time, the Brazilian forward led Southampton's creaky defence in a merry dance and he has 20 goals in all competitions. As Nicol says: "He always looks dangerous."

Manager: Rafa Benitez has been unhappy about Newcastle's transfer market activity since masterminding their return to the Premier League last season, but he could hardly have got more from his players than vs. Man United. Brilliantly organised, the Toon lifted themselves out of the bottom three with a win that will do wonders and their manager is another unanimous choice. Marcotti hails him for "engineering a big, big win -- like the good old days," Nicol says "he got everything spot on" and Mariner admires "a true team performance."


NEWCASTLE, England -- Presumably Jose Mourinho was already grumpy after Manchester United's latest grim away performance, Sunday's 1-0 defeat at Newcastle. But the Old Trafford manager's mood might have darkened further if he heard Jamaal Lascelles, captain of the victorious home side, compare the St. James' Park unfavourably with Arsenal.

"I don't think they turned up today," said Lascelles, in response to a question about Newcastle's performance. "When you play against Arsenal and Manchester City you can really see their quality and, if you make one mistake or lack concentration, a goal will go in. Today I don't think they were at it, from the start of the game."

Ouch. It is one thing for United to be told by a player -- from a team that clambered their way out of the relegation zone with this victory -- that you're no good, but less threatening than Arsenal? That really stings.

Lascelles was right, though. Newcastle had something to do with their opponents' lacklustre showing, with pressing and harassing that forced mistakes and caused uncertainty, but the point is that Rafa Benitez felt emboldened enough to be aggressive against United, without fear his men would be overrun if they pressed too far.

A bit like citing Leicester's 2015-16 Premier League title as proof of what those outside the monied elite can achieve, using this season's soon-to-be champions Manchester City as an example of anything is a tricky business, because they're such an outlier as to render many comparisons pointless.

But it was notable that, when City came to visit at the end of December, Newcastle dug a virtual trench on the edge of their box and barely stuck their heads above it. That night was an exercise in damage limitation and, to a point it worked, in that they only lost 1-0.

There was no such caution against the side that, according to the league table at least, are the second-best in England. United weren't that bad: Alexis Sanchez was lively, while Romelu Lukaku did some smart things with the ball and, against a goalkeeper having an off day rather than the impressive debutant Martin Dubravka, Mourinho's men might have won 3-1.

But a season of unimaginative performances and the knowledge that they have a troublingly soft underbelly -- not something you'd say of United or Mourinho teams in years gone by -- gave confidence to a side threatened by relegation. Newcastle saw a chance and seized it with an ease that should worry everyone at Old Trafford.

Nor was his biting Arsenal comparison the end of Lascelles' withering assessment of United's performance.

"I think it was down to our pressing, being aggressive and on the front foot and obviously they didn't like it," he added. "I was at the back and could see their centre-halves on the ball and [they] didn't know what to do with it."

The defenders in question were Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, each of whom summed up United's inadequacy with isolated moments in the second-half.

First, the free kick from which Newcastle scored their winner was conceded when Smalling dived, pointlessly, in the middle of his own half after a heavy touch. Why do that? Even if you think simulation isn't a blight on the game and ultimately serves a purpose, what does it achieve to flop over in such scenario?

It spoke to a muddled mind, as did an incident in second-half stoppage time when United captain Antonio Valencia had to remind Jones to get back on the pitch so he could receive the ball from a throw-in.

You could argue that strident criticism is harsh, given there is only one club above them in the Premier League just happens to be among the most dominant for years. But something is wrong and there are clear problems with this United team.

Beyond those centre-backs, there is the question of how to fit in Sanchez when you've already got Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, as well as the ongoing "how to get the best from Paul Pogba" debate.

However, while those issues can be addressed on the training pitch, there seems to be a more fundamental -- perhaps more intangible -- problem: Opponents are not scared of United.

Granted, that might not have been the case since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, but the point is that little has changed in that respect since Mourinho arrived 18 months ago. And, at the very least, you would expect United's fear factor to be greater than that of Arsenal.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.