Mason Mount, Manchester United and a move that has not worked out… yet

Oliver Kay and Thom Harris

Mason Mount likes to challenge himself. Heading to the Netherlands as an 18-year-old, joining Vitesse Arnhem on loan, he set himself a target of 10 goals. He beat it, scoring 14.

It was the same on loan at Derby County the following season. He was warned the Championship would be tough for a young player, but still he beat his target, scoring 11.

Upon returning to Chelsea, he insisted on setting himself the same target. It was a huge step up for a 20-year-old who had never played Premier League football. In a highly impressive breakthrough season, he was mildly disappointed not to score more than eight goals.

There has always been more to Mount’s game — and even at academy level, he prided himself on his out-of-possession work — but he defines himself by his goalscoring output. He scored nine in all competitions for Chelsea in 2020-21 and 13 the following season, winning the club’s player of the year award on both occasions.

His final season at Chelsea was a struggle for a variety of reasons, but it was reflected in the drop in his goalscoring output (just three in 35 appearances, plus one in five games for England).

A summer transfer to Manchester United offered a fresh start but here we are in late November and he is yet to score for his new club. In fact, he is yet to score in 25 appearances for Chelsea and now United in a miserable calendar year in which he has also lost his place in the England squad.

It isn’t just the goals that have dried up. Hampered by injury, swapping one misfiring team for another, struggling to nail down a regular role in an ever-changing line-up, he has barely had a goalscoring opportunity of note.

Across 400 minutes of Premier League football for United, Mount has had just three goal attempts, with none of them on target. There was a header off target and a shot blocked in the closing stages of a 1-0 home defeat by Crystal Palace in late September and another shot blocked at home to Brentford a week later. But they weren’t even half-chances. Since then, four substitute appearances and barely a sight of goal. According to Opta, Mount’s current expected goals (xG) figure in the 2023-24 Premier League is 0.2.

That is not the only area of concern.

Mount is yet to assist a goal in the Premier League this season (though he did set up a Casemiro goal with a corner in a Carabao Cup tie against Crystal Palace). His last assist in the Premier League was in October 2022, which is remarkable for a creative player who registered 10 assists (as well as scoring 11 goals) two seasons ago.

The graphics below show a sharp reduction in Mount’s performance metrics in several areas between 2021-22 and 2022-23, suggesting that last season he was less creative, taking fewer shots and receiving the ball in attacking areas a lot less often. His ball retention and progressive passing also reduced significantly.

Given how little football Mount has played this season, it feels it would be too early — the sample size too small — to produce a pizza chart for it. But if we did, the current picture would not be positive. In almost all the areas where he suffered a drop last season, his data is down again.

That is to be expected when he has played in a deeper role at times, sometimes as one of three central midfielders, sometimes as one of two in a 4-2-3-1 formation which demands restraint. But even the number of passes he is playing is down — to just 29.5 successful passes per 90 minutes, from a high of 48.3 per 90 in 2020-21. In terms of successful passes, progressive passes and progressive carries, as well as goals and assists (actual and expected), his numbers are down for a third consecutive season.

A new start? So far at Old Trafford, nothing has gone to plan.

It was the first week of July and United were delighted to have got their man. Arsenal and particularly Liverpool had been very keen and there was firm interest from his former coach Thomas Tuchel at Bayern Munich, but the sales pitch from Old Trafford was — perhaps unusually in recent years — clear and compelling. Mount’s mind was made up from the start of the summer.

Along with Liverpool, they had initially decided they would go no higher than £40million ($45.8m), given that Mount was in the final year of his contract and talks over a new deal had reached an impasse.

United ultimately agreed to pay an initial £55million for Mount, plus a further £5m if certain performance-related conditions are met. But they were happy with the deal, feeling they could not risk losing out to a rival. Mount was delighted too; he said he “couldn’t be more excited” to be heading north.

A few weeks ago, former Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand suggested Mount might have struggled with the move because “no disrespect to Chelsea (…), the pressure when you come to Man United brings a different kind of weight on the shoulders. The badge is heavier when things aren’t going well.”

Ferdinand added that Mount had been a “golden boy” at Chelsea and was “never really on the receiving end of negativity or scrutiny: ‘Should he be here? He’s not good enough. Should he be here?’. He’s never had that in his life, really.”

But life at Chelsea was nothing like so straightforward as Ferdinand suggests. That “golden boy” label didn’t just fall into his lap; if that status existed in reality, it was hard-earned and frequently challenged.

There was constant scrutiny and accusations among some fans that he was a “teacher’s pet” because Frank Lampard and then Tuchel — as well as England manager Gareth Southgate — seemed in thrall to his talents. With England in particular, there was often a public or social media clamour for more of a crowd-pleasing player, such as Jack Grealish, to replace him.

Chelsea is hardly a pressure-free environment. This wasn’t Harry Maguire arriving at United from Leicester City or Aaron Wan-Bissaka stepping up from Crystal Palace. Many players (most obviously Jadon Sancho) have struggled under the weight of expectation at Old Trafford in recent years, but the same has been true of Chelsea. At least until last season, Mount appeared to carry that burden at Chelsea far more easily than others.

As for the “weight” of the famous Manchester United No 7 shirt, Mount was more than happy to take that on.

Speaking to some of those close to Mount, they suggest the “pressure” argument is misplaced. They say he has been frustrated by the stop-start nature of his first few months at United, but he “loves” playing in front of huge crowds and doesn’t seem to miss Chelsea anything like as much as some imagined he would, having been there since he was six years old.

Whatever difficulties he has faced this season appear to have come down purely to what has happened — and, increasingly, what hasn’t happened — on the pitch.

In announcing the deal for Mount in July, United’s football director John Murtough declared that “his style of play and attributes are a perfect fit for this squad”.

But were they? They already had Bruno Fernandes, a player who works in similar areas, operating in a loose attacking midfield role with the freedom to find space between the opposition’s defensive lines.

Paul Scholes made that point recently.

“I think he would ideally like to play where Fernandes is, which is probably all over the pitch,” the former Manchester United and England midfielder told the Webby & O’Neill podcast. “I think the manager signed him as an attacking midfield player. But it upsets the balance of the team. It upsets the legs he has in midfield.

“I really think (Erik ten Hag) wanted to play him with Fernandes, but the two of them playing in the team (…) just doesn’t seem to be working now. It really leaves them open in midfield. To bring someone like Mason Mount into the team, he almost needs two holding midfielders with him to get the balance of the team right.”

That point was underlined in United’s opening game of this Premier League season against Wolverhampton Wanderers, when Fernandes and Mount played in twin No 8 roles in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Casemiro at the base of midfield. Ten Hag’s team won 1-0 but a lack of control in midfield was a concern, with Wolves playing through them on numerous occasions. Six days later, Mount was stationed slightly deeper in a 2-0 away defeat against Tottenham Hotspur, where he picked up a hamstring problem in the game’s closing stages.

By the time Mount returned to action in late September, results had deteriorated and the mood around United had changed. So too, it seemed, had Ten Hag’s thoughts on how his midfield might operate, turning to Scott McTominay, Hannibal Mejbri and loan signing Sofyan Amrabat in the hope of finding more robustness.

In that Carabao Cup tie against Palace, Mount played on the left of a midfield three; four days later, at home against Brentford, he started in a No 10 role in a 4-2-3-1 but ended up on the right, swapping with Fernandes; he was a substitute away to Sheffield United and then again in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford, introduced in an ill-judged half-time reshuffle; back in the deeper role alongside Casemiro in a 4-2-3-1 for the Carabao Cup defeat by Newcastle United; a late substitute away to both Fulham and FC Copenhagen; a first-half substitute for the injured Christian Eriksen, alongside McTominay at the base of midfield, in the 1-0 home win against Luton Town.

That Luton match underlined Mount’s struggle in what might be termed the Eriksen role. He completed just 17 passes in 51 minutes — as opposed to Eriksen’s 26 passes in the first 39 minutes. Even with United having the lion’s share of possession, Mount and McTominay didn’t really succeed in setting the tempo of the game.

As much as Ten Hag might describe him as a “multi-functional” midfielder, Mount’s game has never been about dropping deep and dictating possession. He has an excellent passing range but is not an Eriksen, Luka Modric or Andrea Pirlo type, always recycling the ball.

Mount’s game is about finding space further forward with perceptive, perfectly-timed runs. More than most leading players, he excels in his off-the-ball work, whether that is pressing the opposition or finding space to add a different attacking dimension.

His more attacking instincts — and the limitations of that deeper role — were underlined in this situation shortly after his introduction against Luton.

When McTominay wins possession on the United left, near the touchline, Mount is in a central position.

He holds his place, ready to break forward if things open up.

As Sergio Reguilon breaks clear on the left-hand side, both Mount and Fernandes look to join the attack, running into the same channel.

But Mount, in particular, has too much ground to make up from such a deep starting position. In any case, Reguilon’s decision-making is poor, as is his delivery from the left. The move breaks down with Mount still 40 yards from the Luton goal.

When playing in a more advanced position, Mount has been more able to make the runs he is renowned for.

But, too often, his new team-mates have not been on the same wavelength, for instance here against Wolves in August as he sees Casemiro prepare to play a pass to Antony on the right wing.

Thinking one step ahead, Mount sets off on the perfect “third man” run to take him beyond the Wolves defence if Antony can pick him out quickly enough.

But Antony, having waited for the ball, checks inside onto his left foot and the momentum behind the move is lost.

Rasmus Hojlund, the club’s most expensive summer signing, would sympathise. How many times this season has the Denmark forward raced into a goalscoring position, only for Antony, Marcus Rashford or Alejandro Garnacho to take the wrong option or simply misplace the pass? United simply haven’t functioned as a creative unit. And Mount, when he has played, has been much further from the goal than he is accustomed to.

The graphic below illustrates the areas where he has taken the majority of his touches over the past four seasons. The darker the square, the higher the proportion of touches in that area of the pitch.

In his two best seasons, he was more involved in the final third of the pitch, often in a loose left-sided role in 2020-21 and on the right in 2021-22. Last season, there was a similar spread in terms of where he took his touches but, as mentioned earlier, a lower volume of touches.

This season shows a more confused picture, reflecting a smaller sample size and the lack of continuity in any single role. But compared to previous years, he has taken far more touches in that deeper central role just short of the halfway line and fewer in the final third.

Add to that the reduced volume of touches and it is easy to see why he has struggled to make a creative or attacking impact.

Speak to anyone who has worked with Mount and they will tell you the same things: about his professionalism, his work ethic, his fitness levels, his dedication and his game intelligence.

Former Chelsea Under-18s coach Jody Morris, reflecting on his 18-month spell as Lampard’s assistant between 2019 and 2021, told FourFourTwo magazine last year that Mount “was head and shoulders above any other performers in that team in terms of his consistency, his work rate, his performance, his day-to-day attitude and the way he has grown”.

Staff at United have been highly impressed by his character too. There is sympathy for his difficult start and respect for the way he has knuckled down and kept working — not something that is taken for granted in an era when sulkiness and disengagement have been all too common visitors to the Old Trafford dressing room.

Southgate has offered some degree of reassurance too. Despite having left him out of the past two England squads since his return from injury, he still holds Mount in high regard. He just wants to see him get back to previous performance levels.

There is a belief Mount has been an unfortunate victim of United’s early-season struggles, that his integration has been disrupted not just by the injury he suffered in August but by the poor results during his absence, causing Ten Hag to look for a change of emphasis in midfield.

As such, it is easy to regard a difficult start to Mount’s career in Manchester as nothing more serious than that. He signed a five-year contract, with the option of a sixth. He is 24, a long-term investment, and has the time, character and versatility to adapt to his new surroundings.

If there is a concern, it is that Mount’s slump pre-dates this season. He seemed to be dragged down by a general malaise at Chelsea last term and again now at United, but, as a £55million signing, he is one of those players who has to find an antidote.

He has joined a club where so many big-name signings have struggled over the past decade. For some players, as Ferdinand suggests, the pressure of playing for Manchester United in this difficult era has indeed been a problem. For certain others, the biggest problem has been that they were signed without a clear vision in mind.

Mount wasn’t one of those erratic, impulsive signings made late in a transfer window with the clock ticking and the pressure on the board growing. He was a prime target, a player much admired by Ten Hag since 2018, when his Ajax team were beaten 3-2 by a Mount-inspired Vitesse. Indeed, Ten Hag was interested in signing him for Ajax the following season, only for Chelsea to loan him to Lampard and Derby.

The biggest difficulty for Mount is that whatever vision Ten Hag had for the team this season has become blurred by the way the campaign has unfolded: an injury crisis, a series of poor performances and results and a change of tactical emphasis.

Things should get easier if and when the picture improves but coming up next is an extremely challenging run of games: starting away to Everton on Sunday, then a high-stakes clash with Galatasaray in Istanbul in the Champions League, then Newcastle United away, before an Old Trafford reunion with Chelsea.

If Ten Hag is looking for a gentler run of games to loosen the shackles on his midfield, this seems unlikely to be it. Mount, like others, will be under pressure to seize any opportunity that comes along.

The problem is that, in an unfamiliar team struggling to find their way, the opportunities just don’t seem to be coming along anything like as frequently as they did before.

(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

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