The pattern that Mourinho cannot break

April 6, 2017 Tags: , Reads 26 comments
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Has Manchester United manager José Mourinho regressed into his bad cop routine just a little too early? The pattern is familiar, the one in which Dirty Harry challenges his punk players to try their luck. Just one more time. It begins with key players being ostracised in an increasingly public fashion, as if to distract from on-the-pitch failings, and ends with Mourinho leaving his post ignominiously, player power having won. Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Chelsea again. Bad cop gone bad. The red flags are many at Old Trafford as well. In the course of a week Mourinho launched into an astonishing and public attack on his creative players, before throwing youthful defender Luke Shaw under a lengthy bus. Yet, for all the concerns raised by Mourinho the man manager this week it is another pattern that is troubling the Portuguese coach most – the inability of his team to win games at Old Trafford. It will probably cost the club a place in next season’s Champions League.

This week United added two more ties to a lengthening series. In total the Reds have drawn nine Premier League games at Old Trafford this season; 18 points dropped that could have, theoretically at least, put United top of the league. That scenario is unrealistic in any campaign, but even more so with a United side that has been so persistently wasteful. Yet, in at least five of those matches the home side was dominant, but unable to fashion goals from possession retained and chances created. In others, including games against West Bromwich Albion and Everton over the past week, Mourinho’s side performed well below expectations.

"For all the concerns raised by Mourinho the man manager this week, it is another pattern that is troubling the Portuguese coach most – the inability of his team to win games at Old Trafford."

The pattern of drawing when victory should have come will define Mourinho’s first season at United. In games against Stoke City, Burnley, Bournemouth, West Ham Untied and Hull City, Mourinho had legitimate reason to feel aggrieved. Not that some greater conspiracy stopped his team from taking maximum points, but that his own players failed to convert dominance into victory. None more so than in the home fixture against The Clarets, when the Reds took 37 shots without scoring. Draws against Arsenal and Liverpool belong to a different group, although United was the superior side in each without turning that dominance into victory. It is the stuff of which Champions are never made.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

This week’s pair of stalemates offered something different again. Something much more insidious in which United performed poorly in each. There were mitigating circumstances in the Reds’ draw with West Brom, where half-a-dozen players missed the game through suspension and injury, including the key trio of Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera. In their absence Mourinho’s side was laboured and unambitious, reduced to what has now become the common plan B of launching deep, straight crosses that largely fail to cause the opposition trouble. Indeed, against West Brom and Everton the Reds made more than 30 crosses in each game, finding an attacking target with single-digit percentage success. Mourinho’s side was not much better against Everton, offering little in the way of intensity or penetration until Pogba and Henrik Mkhitaryan joined the game in the second half.

The pattern is truly concerning, revealing not only United’s enduring mediocrity this season, but increasingly a lack of coherent plan for the team bar – as Mourinho appears to suggest – spending yet more millions in the transfer window this coming summer. History augurs that chequebook management is far from a good strategy for United, at least not since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.

It is all a long way from the promise Mourinho offered when he joined the club last summer. The two-times Champions League winner was supposed to guarantee United a seat at Europe’s top table. By now the conclusion is clear and fair: the team’s under-performance is mirrored by the manager’s. Not that Mourinho will, or frankly should, lose his job even if United fails to qualify for the Champions League. Not least because Mourinho comes with a track record – not just of falling out with players and management, but of silverware including, of course, the League Cup secured earlier this season. Perhaps even more important is the fact that there are only so many coaches that the club can fire before the death spiral of perma-decline sets in. With it might come a Liverpoolisation of United that would take decades to unwind.

The cause of and solution to United’s problems is myriad. The easy analysis says that United’s strikers have failed given that the team’s conversion rate of shots to goals is just 3.48 percent this season. Mourinho’s team has taken the second highest average number of shots per game in the league, behind only Tottenham Hotspur, yet is eighth for goals scored. Even Bournemouth has scored more.

Ibrahimovic is not beyond criticism even if he has scored 27 times this season, a remarkable feat even before factoring in the Swede’s advancing years. The striker has taken 112 shots in the league alone for 16 goals, which is a conversion rate of 14 per cent – less than half that of the league’s top scorer, Romelu Lukaku.

Marcus Rashford, Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Elsewhere strikers Antony Martial and Marcus Rashford has struggled to score, league or otherwise, albeit with the heavy caveat that neither has featured often enough through the middle. Martial has seven goals in all competitions this season, with Rashford recording an equal number. The Englishman hasn’t scored in the league since September and, again with caveats, failed to truly capitalise on the opportunity afforded him during Ibrahimovic’s recent suspension.

Mourinho is yet to criticise his star striker for the apparently profligacy, although the Portuguese coach took umbrage at many of United’s attacking players this week, none of which – Juan Mata and the Swede aside – have broken double figures for goals scored in all competitions. “How many goals have Rashford, Lingard, Mkhitaryan, Herrera, Pogba scored?” Mourinho asked after Tuesday’s draw against Everton. “How many goals from these attacking players? Not enough.”

True, the score count is low, but then there is also evidence beyond poor conversion rates to suggest that Mourinho’s team is structurally unsuited to scoring goals. In those matches against West Brom and Everton the team was set-up with two defensive-minded midfielders for much of the 180 minutes. Across the whole season, United has rarely been able to get midfielders breaking ahead of the ball. Indeed, the award-winning Daniel Storey notes in Football365, that despite more than 30 per cent of Tuesday’s match being played in Everton’s third of the field “Ibrahimovic was the only United player to reach double figures for the number of touches in the opposition box.” Across the season United’s high shot count is also characterised by a large percentage of efforts from outside the box.

“The inability of United to get attacking midfielders close to goal is one of the defining aspects of their league season,” Storey adds. “Raheem Sterling has had 8.55 touches of the ball in the opposition box per 90 minutes this season, Sadio Mane 6.63, Leroy Sane 6.37, David Silva, Eden Hazard and Mesut Ozil all comfortably over five touches. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has averaged 4.8, Juan Mata 4.5, Paul Pogba 4.2, Jesse Lingard 3.84 and Ander Herrera 0.85.”

United’s challenge is not ill luck, as Mourinho claimed earlier in the season, nor solely poor finishing by a clutch of hugely talented attacking players, but one of the manager’s own making. Not that Mourinho is prone to introspection. That is a pattern, along with the inflexibility, crude public assassination of his players, and the glut of trophies, that has followed the Portuguese coach throughout his career. He’s unlikely to break it soon. He must break United’s pattern of limp home draws.


Denton Davey - April 7, 2017 Reply

” Across the season United’s high shot count is also characterised by a large percentage of efforts from outside the box.”

This is key – not enough wall-passing/give-and-go running at/through the opposition. Too much circling the opposition box and then shooting rather than looking to find a way through their massed ranks.

In Jo$e’s defence, it’s also true that a number of opposition keepers have had their best game of the season @ Old Trafford or against TheLads away. Plus, the number of times UTD’s shots have hit posts/cross-bars is truly astonishing.

Andrew Daniel - April 7, 2017 Reply

“This week United added two more ties to a lengthening series.”
“Even Bournemouth has scored more.”
What’s with all the ‘Americanisms’ on this site? At times you could be forgiven for forgetting this is an English site. Trying to curry favour with American fans?

Ed - April 7, 2017 Reply

Both of those sentences are correct grammatically and structurally. I suppose you would like “Bournemouth have….” even though there’s only one Bournemouth. Perhaps I’m just not trying to curry favour with illiterate twats like you?

Andrew Daniel - April 7, 2017 Reply

I didn’t say they were grammatically incorrect, but singular nouns are used in America, plural here. And who says ‘ties’ over here? Nobody. So no need to get all aggressive, I just question the use of American English on a domestic​ United site.

Musa Bulus - April 7, 2017 Reply

And so what if it’s an English site? As long as the message is passed across. Such a daft comment.

Ed - April 7, 2017 Reply

You: I don’t like these funny sounding words it’s not the way I say things
Me: It’s correct English
You: It’s all foreign to me
Me: Never darken my door again you offensive, illiterate, borderline racist twat

Tom - April 7, 2017 Reply

Wow, no need to get so aggressive! He’s right in what he says, show me another UK based publication which uses singular nouns for football teams. If you started using americanisms in your pieces then obviously it’s legitimate English, doesn’t mean it’s correct. Have a nice day you angry angry man.

Ed - April 7, 2017 Reply

Why does it matter where the site is based? Why do you get to edit how I write? On the matter of English, I’m right and your argument is based solely on nationality. Or to put it another way, I’m right and you, like Andrew, are (not is) a twat.

JonB - April 7, 2017 Reply

I use singular nouns for football teams and I am from Yorkshire, not a place known for Americanisms. Don’t be such prats, Andrew and Tom.

Andrew Daniel - April 9, 2017

The biggest prick is Ed for flying off the handle and deleting comments because he cant take criticism. That and throwing around absurd accusations of racism in irrelevant contexts (America is a race dammit!!).

Ed - April 9, 2017

Andrew – how precious. You are in a moderation queue. It would seem that you can’t take it – a little pushback on your worthless braindead little Englander routine. In the end you are wrong about language, I can write whatever I like on my site (we have a style guide we have used for many years), and you can do absolutely nothing about it. Does that wind you up? Having done this for more than a decade I’ve heard a lot worse you.

j-diz - April 7, 2017 Reply

Ed pal, I really appreciate your work (and Paul and the rest). Please don’t do yourself the disservice of letting your temper get the better of you. Andrew’s comment was unnecessary and a bit petty imho, but your response was over the top. Anyway, keep up the good work.

Ed - April 7, 2017 Reply

I’m cool bro, no temper here. It’s easy to clock what these guys are. See his next message. I wasn’t nearly harsh enough.

Marco - April 7, 2017 Reply

Is it safe to come in now?
I’m not going to snipe at Mourinho because it is clear that he is as frustrated with our under-performing as we are. This is not a Mourinho team; it’s a hotchpotch of hangovers from the Fergie era, one from Moyes, and several from Van Gaal. At least two-Carrick and Rooney, will be gone this summer and I suspect a few more are aware that their days in the red shirt are numbered. And it shows.

Zlatan was always for the short-term but where would we be without him this season? Bailly has proved his worth and so has Miki, albeit after a shaky start. We need to bring in a central midfield destroyer, a capable striker, and another centre half.

The club is paying for years of chronic under-investment by the Glazers since 2005, Fergie’s hubris (Moyes), and Van Gaal’s insane philosophy of micro-management and trying to hammer square pegs into round holes. And people expect Mourinho to waltz in and wave a magic wand? It was never going to happen.

As Scholes said, in a year’s time, we won’t recognize the players on the pitch. Most of those on display today will be gone and then Mourinho will stand or fall on what his team does, not the leftovers from prior managers.

Denton Davey - April 7, 2017 Reply

I was with you until I read “We need to bring in a central midfield destroyer, a capable striker, and another centre half.” In my opinion, what’s needed is more “creativity” from the fullbacks – none of Young/Valencia/Blind/Darmian do much of that AND a central midfielder who can turn-defence-into-offence so that Pogba can be freed-to-do-his-thing. As for a striker, I’d like to see Rashford/Martial fight for that spot – a fair-fight, mind you (i.e., not being in Zlatan’s shadow).

If UTD are going to bring in another striker then I know that Griezmann is the usual suspect but I’d actually like to see Alvaro Morata who seems to be getting restless playing second fiddle to Karim Benzema. He’s a bit more of a “bull” than Rashford/Martial AND he knows Jo$e from their time together in Madrid.

If they could stay healthy, I’d be quite happy with Bailly/Rojo as the main, central defensive pairing. Sure, they’re not Rio/Vidic but, apart from the very rare fuck-up – which happens to everyone not named Franco Baresi – they’re good enough.

I also think that whoever plays in central defence, DDG needs to improve his command of the area. Every match you see a mis-communication between the keeper (who is facing the play) and the central defenders who just don’t seem to fully trust that DDG will act forcefully. He’s a brilliant, athletic shot-stopper and distributes the ball well but his “command of the area” doesn’t seem to have improved much.

Marco - April 7, 2017 Reply

Valencia does a great job at right back. It’s the left back position where the problem is, unless Shaw gets back to where he was before the PSV game. Mourinho is just doing with him what he did with his players at Porto. Some it motivates, others it breaks. It’s a bit like basic training where the NCOs break you down then build you up. OK, yer actual erk isn’t a millionaire footballer but the principle is the same.

Bailly has the potential to be another Rio. Rojo I’m not too sure about but the signs are good. You’re right about De Gea and I’m wondering if his head is already at the Bernabeu. He certainly does not command like Schmeichel or Van Der Sar and maybe we should be looking at Son of Schmeichel if the boys from Madrid come calling.

I maintain that we need a destroyer who will do exactly what you want: turn defence into attack. Herrera might fit the bill somewhat but he’s not a specialist in that role and Jose loves his specialists. Makes you wonder who will be surplus to requirements this summer. If we do manage to get CL football next season, things will need to improve vastly.

Denton Davey - April 7, 2017 Reply

“Makes you wonder who will be surplus to requirements this summer.” Actually, I’m wondering which players would be considered “safe” from the cull.

We’ll have to agree-to-disagree about Valencia = to my mind, he gets in great positions but always seems to end up blind alleys. AND his crossing ain’t much cop, either. He’s doing a better job than the all-sorts on the other, left side but, really, that’s damning with faint praise.

Andrew Daniel - April 7, 2017 Reply

Offensive, borderline racist? Never took you for a SJW quim. Like the reverse Daily Mail.
“United have had nine home ties this season” ffs 😁.

Ed - April 7, 2017 Reply

The alt-right revealed. See, I clocked you from the start.

NazManUnited - April 7, 2017 Reply

MUFC have to buy a marquee striker to help stop the rot.

NazManUnited - April 7, 2017 Reply

MUFC need to sign a marquee midfielder to replace Carrick. Other weak MF’s can be sold.

NazManUnited - April 7, 2017 Reply

MUFC need to sell players that affect game set up & psychology. Rooney, Fellaini, etc need to go!

NazManUnited - April 7, 2017 Reply

MUFC need a Sane, or Mane type player

NazManUnited - April 7, 2017 Reply

Rashford, Lingard etc are subs they shouldn’t be the main 11. More quality needed for the first 11.

Julian - April 8, 2017 Reply

It’s too early to tell for sure but Mourinho is exhibiting all the bad traits, vis a vis certain players, which characterized the latter stages of his times at Real and Chelsea. Unless he can turn this around resoundingly next season the case that Mourinho’s best days are in the past will become more relevant.

Henry Fernandes - April 11, 2017 Reply

I thought the article was very well written and I appreciate the insights.

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