Manchester United fans have not had any cause for serious complaint on the pitch in the season's early going.
Including the Super Cup, the season's record in all competitions makes pretty reading: played 11, won nine, drawn one, lost one, goals for 33 and goals against six. Take out the Super Cup, and it's P10, W9, D1, L0, GF 32, GA 4. Impressive stuff.
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Romelu Lukaku at Manchester United: Games 9 Goals 10 Top scorer in the #UCL this season? 🔥🔥🔥 https://t.co/jlP4ri5ZBI2017-9-27 19:21:03
All this is a preamble to say Mourinho is getting much more right than he is getting wrong. Even the scrappy win away at Southampton—probably the worst performance of the season—looks better when bookended by two 4-1 victories, especially the one in Moscow.
But inevitably, given the squad-based nature of 21st-century elite-level football, there have been players getting a bit of a short shrift in among all this. We spoke to a number of fans to see who they thought met the criteria for being the most underused.
The answers were close to being unanimous, but there were a few exceptions. Well-liked United tweeter @ManUtd24 said: "Easy one. It's very easy to get excited about Juan Mata, but I don't think he should start over Anthony Martial. The stats will show you that United have actually scored more without the Spaniard, which isn't a completely fair reflection but shouldn't be ignored, either.
"I mean, in three of the Premier League 4-0s, Mata was taken off at 1-0 around the 70-minute mark. Either that means teams tire and United hurt them with their fresh or dynamic legs, which can't really be a slight on Mata, or that United are just better with all that pace and specific kind of trickery that both Martial and Marcus Rashford provide. And which Mata doesn't have.
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An incredible contribution from this man tonight - @AnthonyMartial is your Man of the Match! #MUFC #UCL https://t.co/2zXnEFkLN72017-9-27 21:33:12
"Rashford and Martial together? I think it's worth a go. United are so much better than most teams, so I'm not sure I agree with the idea that Mata brings a kind of necessary balance that the others do not.
"Both Martial and Rashford are technically brilliant, and both can really spot a pass or hold the ball when necessary. I think with Rashford and Martial in tandem, United would hit another level.
"Besides, let's not forget that Henrikh Mkhitaryan plays too, so it's not that United don't have a variation of styles in their attack—if that is the argument—all ready to go with the many things Rashford and Martial provide."
It is in an interesting argument, and it is certainly true United have almost always looked at their best with Martial in the side. And it is also true that more Martial would seem like a good thing, especially in light of the form he is in. But given he has featured at least briefly in eight of United's 11 fixtures this season—scoring five and assisting four—there is reason to look to others when determining who has been most underused.
Another who picked outside of the typical response was Scott Patterson of the Republik of Mancunia blog and ESPN FC. He said: "It's surprising how little Michael Carrick has been played. While we didn't expect him to start every week, Mourinho's decision to name him captain in the summer seems all the more peculiar now. He's a good option to help see the game out but has only been given playing time against Championship opposition Burton Albion.
"Presumably we will see him more now that Paul Pogba is injured."
The final dissenting voice here was Dave O'Brien, AKA Statman Dave, who said: "I don't think anyone has been underused. It has been perfect squad rotation from Mourinho in my opinion."
That is hard to argue with too strongly given how good United's results have been.
Everyone else we spoke to, though, had the same answer. United fan Steven Narloch, a regular in the north-east quadrant at Old Trafford, struggled to pick but settled for Ander Herrera. Journalist Darren Richman agreed and added "surely everyone will say that." Not quite everyone, but almost...
Iwan Lehnert, co-host of the Red Voices Podcast, said of Herrera: "I think we've missed his running in midfield since we lost Pogba to injury and his bite, which was evident in his display against Southampton. He's always going to close down more than Marouane Fellaini, and as our upcoming fixtures are sure to be tighter affairs, I expect we'll see him more often."
Adam McKola of Full Time Devils and Adam McKola TV said: "I'm not worried. His time will come. Without Pogba, though, I believe he's key because a midfield two of Fellaini and Nemanja Matic is very static and lacks the energy or enthusiasm [that Herrera brings].
Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe also settled on Herrera, saying: "It's a hard question as Mourinho has rotated very well in my opinion. Daley Blind has played a fair bit, but I still feel like he hasn't been used enough given how others have performed there. I think the right answer is Ander Herrera, though.
"Obviously, I'm an Ander Ultra, but objectively speaking he's not played anywhere near enough league football. Fellaini's been alright, but wouldn't the midfield be more dynamic with Ander alongside Matic?"
Herrera's position at United is a fascinating one. He has clearly impressed fans and analysts alike, and was voted player of the year last term. Before Pogba's injury in early September, though, United looked better with Matic alongside the Frenchman than they had with Herrera holding down the midfield, as fine a job as he had done the season prior.
This is not that surprising; Matic was already a specialist in the kind of holding role to which Herrera was adapting. Remember, the Basque midfielder played at both No. 10 and on the right of midfield at Athletic Bilbao. And even when played in the heart of midfield, he was more of a passer than a destroyer.
So there was no shame in his losing out to Matic for that job, but Mourinho's initial decision to play Fellaini alongside the Serb in Pogba's absence was probably more of a blow. In the end, though, that decision was probably about form. Herrera struggled on his return to the side, against Stoke City on Sept. 9, whereas Fellaini, with a few substitute run-outs under his belt already this season, hit the ground running when he came on for Pogba against FC Basel.
In the medium term, a Matic-Herrera axis seems likely to develop in Pobga's absence. It was extremely effective in the UEFA Champions League win against CSKA Moscow on Wednesday night—a game the Red Devils made look easy.
Having quality players who have not got that much game time is a sign of United's overall strength. And, as McKola said, there is no reason to panic yet. We are eleven games in, and the season is just starting to warm up. Over the course of the campaign, the whole squad will be needed, particularly players of the calibre of Herrera and Martial.
For now, Herrera has the title of most underused. No one, though, will be complaining if Mourinho's side can keep the train rolling as smoothly as it has done up to now.
All quotations obtained firsthand.