Jose Mourinho has addressed a number of issues during his first season at Manchester United. Compared to the last three seasons, the quality of football has improved and, at times over the last eight months, United have shown glimpses of playing with the urgency and verve of old. They are also beginning to rediscover the knack of scoring late goals, a habit that had deserted the club under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal.
And yet, six weeks from the season, a balance of the Portuguese’s first campaign at Old Trafford provides more questions than answers. While Mourinho’s arrival has reinvigorated fans and players, United remain an enormously frustrating side to watch, on the cusp of looking credible title challenger one week, beset by the same old issues the next.
While comparing Mourinho’s tenure with that of his two predecessors is as lazy a narrative as it is predictable, there is an argument United have not made the progress many expected from them in August.
United’s 0-0 draw against West Bromwich will likely prove to be the final nail in the coffin of their aspirations to reach a top four finish and, based on their league form, United only have themselves to blame.
Saturday’s stalemate was the ninth time this season UnIted have failed to win at home in the league. Dropping points at Old Trafford against City, Liverpool and Arsenal might be acceptable at a push, failure to beat West Ham, Hull, Stoke, Burnley, West Brom and Bournemouth is not.
Mourinho was expected to restore United’s fear factor at Old Trafford but, despite only losing at home once all season in domestic competitions, have become incredibly easy to tame when playing on home turf. For a side aspiring to win the league that is a very worrying trend.
Unless United can get an early goal, which has been an incredibly rare event so far this season, they struggle to break their opponents down. Visiting sides have figured United out and are happy to soak up pressure, content to frustrate United rather than looking to create something themselves.
Most of games at home this season have followed the same pattern and are in fact so eerily similar to one another that one could be forgiven for thinking the same match is being broadcast on repeat. Mourinho has criticised his strikers’ profligacy in front of goal, cursed his luck which sees visiting goalkeepers turn into insurmountable obstacles at Old Trafford and blamed the negative approach the majority of away teams bring to Manchester.
While all of the above is true, the latter can hardly be a surprise. It was the same during Sir Alex Ferguson’s 25 years in charge and is unlikely to change anytime soon. Taking the game to United is rarely the gameplay for visiting sides, nor should it be for teams looking to escape relegation or to avoid a battering.
Frustrating as that might be, in the past United almost found a way past the issue. Which is where the real worries begin for Mourinho, for his side looks consistently stuck in second gear. Unless United are winning at half-time or open the scoring early, they seem incapable to break teams down and have the same composure of a man trying to knock down a wall by headbutting it.
Failure to remain calm and controlled – panic normally sets in by halfway through the second half, with hopeful long balls launched towards the box – is an issue which only exacerbates United’s dreadful finishing in front of goal, which has been well documented.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, despite an excellent debut season, has missed chances a man of his calibre should have put away, Marcus Rashford hasn’t scored in the league since September and Anthony Martial looks completely devoid of confidence in front of goal.
United have only picked up five points in five games against the current top four sides and Arsenal this season, meaning they desperately need to put smaller teams away if they are to mount a serious title challenge next season.
While beating their main rivals has its obvious advantages, Liverpool’s record this season illustrates beating teams lower down in the table is probably more important for sides harbouring serious aspirations of success.
Jurgen Klopp’s men have the best record in the mini-league between the top six sides, but languish behind Chelsea after dropping points against the likes of
Long criticised for being a manager capable only of shutting shop as soon as his sides went 1-0 up, Mourinho has so far struggled to open the shop for business to begin with. The sooner that changes, the better for him and United.