The pattern that Mourinho cannot break
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.
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.
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.