What is it with the Premier League this season. It is as if, Chelsea aside, nobody really wants to confirm a place in next season’s Champions League, let alone challenge for the title. Manchester United’s victory over last season’s champions Leicester City on Sunday means that there are now just five points between Tottenham Hotspur in second and the Reds in sixth. The only consistency is, apparently, inconsistency.
United’s victory at the King Power Stadium was desperately required after José Mourinho’s side suffered three consecutive draws in the league. It is all the more frustrating for Mourinho because those around United – particularly Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City – have been struggling to put any kind of consistent run together. Mourinho’s side is now 15 league games without defeat. Indeed, United is the only club the top division without a loss in the league over the past 10 games. Yet, that run has not see the Reds storm up the table. There have been just too many sterile draws as well.
"Mourinho’s side scored three times to boost United’s goal difference, although it remains worse than those above the Reds. United has scored just 36 times in the league, 15 fewer than Chelsea, and 17 worse off than Liverpool and Arsenal."
Mourinho’s side scored three times in the East Midlands to boost United’s goal difference, although it remains significantly worse than those above the Reds. The Portuguese manager’s team has now scored just 36 times in the league. That’s 15 fewer than leaders Chelsea, and 17 worse off than Liverpool and Arsenal. In fact, when it comes to goalscoring, Everton has scored more than United, and even lowly Bournemouth is just one behind. United’s profligacy – underlined by one of the lowest shots-to-goals ratio in the league – is the major reason that the Reds have failed to convert draws into the kind of victories that might have led to more certainty over a place at Europe’s top table.
As it is, United might have little better than a 30 per cent chance of featuring in the Champions League next season. It might explain some of the reason why the United coach was far from elated despite the healthy margin of victory over Leicester, declaring the performance “normal” from his team. Mourinho has long rejected any notion that United’s performances have dipped at times this season, once calling the Reds the “unluckiest team in the league.”
Data: Transfermarkt, Opta
“We played well, we tried to win,” Mourinho added. “We didn’t have the best first 15 or 20 minutes, but then we started to have control, we created chances, we scored goals. That’s the only difference – that we arrived at half-time with a 2-0 result. Then we controlled the game and it was quite easy.”
“My team is playing very well. For many years in my career when my teams were ruthless, phenomenal defensively and very good on the counter-attack, I listened week after week that it was not enough, despite winning the title three times. It looks like this season to be phenomenal defensively and good on the counter-attack is an art. I don’t want to change the profile of our play, but I don’t want to be the manager of a team that plays very well, creates a lot of chances and does not win matches.”
Yet, on perhaps as many as half-a-dozen occasions this season that has been the pattern. Good numbers of chances created, but too few taken. It is at least a good contrast with the ennui that took over Louis van Gaal’s reign, but not quite good enough to ensure a return to preeminence almost four years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
It is fortunate for the Reds that others have problems too. While Chelsea’s consistency is to be admired under new manager Antonio Conte none of the chasing pack have been able to close the gap. Spurs in second, are a surprise only because, well, lads its Tottenham. Even then, a heavy number of draws has kept Mauricio Pochettino’s side from mounting any kind of title challenge this season. Increasingly consistent performances from Delle Alli and Harry Kane, who suffered a slow start to the campaign, suggests the north Londoners will be in it for the long haul this time, albeit with history very much against them.
Below Tottenham, Pep Guardiola’s Blues secured a highly-contentious injury time winner against Swansea City this weekend to keep in the hunt after a mixed run of form. Guardiola’s team has lost three times in the past 10 Premier League matches, with a defensive record that is the equal of West Bromwich Albion in ninth place. John Stones’ youth, Nicolas Otamendi’s inconsistency and Vincent Company’s poor injury record have contributed to, at times, calamitous defending. Had referee Mike Dean not ignored a rolling ball from a late free kick on Sunday then United would be within one victory of overtaking City this season.
Then there is Arsenal, a club riddled with a losing mentality that comes from the manager down and permeates the Emirates. The Gunners have lost four league matches in the past 10, effectively ending any hope of a title challenge for another campaign. Arsène Wenger’s outfit is still in the FA Cup, but faces probable defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League Round of 16. Another trophyless season beckons. There have been plenty over the past 15 years. Will Arsenal’s post-Christmas meltdown benefit United? Perhaps, but the Reds must find the consistency that Wenger’s team cannot – unless a late season surge into the Champions League places comes, as normal, from the north London team.
Finally, Liverpool has managed to end the myth of Jurgen Klopp, a charismatic manager that has singularly failed to turn around the Anfield club. Though Liverpool’s pre-Christmas goalscoring feats were widely admired, the team has won only once this year – at Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup. Now 13 points behind Chelsea, Liverpool will surely enter a 28th season without a league title in August. It is a record to be admired.
To progress up the table United must find the stability others cannot. Certainly a kind fixture list could help, although it is against mid-ranked teams that United has too often come unstuck, especially at home. It is not until April, when the Reds face Chelsea at Old Trafford, that Mourinho’s team faces another club in the top six. League games against Watford, Bournemouth, Southampton, Middlesbrough, West Bromwich Albion, Everton, and Sunderland certainly look winnable on paper. It is in the fixtures at Old Trafford in particular that United must find a new gear.
The Reds will probably not take 21 points from those seven matches, but anything close should put Mourinho’s side in a strong position to qualify for the Champions League. United cannot afford any many more frustrating draws. Victory at Leicester was a good start. The odd failure from rivals will help too.