There was an amusing moment when José Mourinho spoke to the press after Manchester United’s draw against Arsenal as the manager attempted to suggest he was at a disadvantage compared with rivals because of the short period of time he has been at the club.
“Look how long Mr Wenger has been with his team,” he began, predictably but reasonably enough. The next manager he mentioned was Mauricio Pochettino, however, who has not exactly been at Tottenham for a lifetime, and when the only other example he could think of was Jürgen Klopp, just over a year at Liverpool and top of the league, he quickly changed tack and began to claim it was the lack of European involvement that was enabling Liverpool and Chelsea to do so well.
Mourinho used to be the master of these media manipulation games, though there have been signs of late he is losing his touch. That was one, another came when he rose from his seat and departed with the throwaway line: “Finally, I lost against Arsène.” Or it would have been a throwaway line had he not felt the need to repeat it three times just in case anyone had not heard.
Perhaps the most contentious claim was Manchester United have somehow been unlucky to end up with three draws and three points from their past three home games. “This team at the moment is the unluckiest team in the Premier League. That is the reality,” Mourinho said, before going on to observe that had his side gained the extra six points they deserved from those three games they would be up with the top four and in contention for honours.
The last part of that theory is true. Had United won their last three home games they would be on 25 points instead of 19, and would be fourth in the table ahead of Arsenal and Spurs. But have United been unlucky to end up with three draws against Stoke, Burnley and Arsenal? Twice in that sequence Mourinho’s side were pegged back by late equalisers, which is always a deflating experience, but to take them in order, the point squandered against Stoke was due to a goalkeeping error by David de Gea.
Even the most reliable goalkeeper will make a mistake now and again, and to that extent United were unlucky, for De Gea remains well on the credit side for his performances over the past few seasons. Yet United had held the lead for only 13 minutes when Joe Allen took advantage of De Gea’s fumble to equalise. They enjoyed 67% of possession and managed 24 goal attempts, nine of which were on target, but still needed Anthony Martial to come off the bench to put them in the lead in the second half. Stoke’s reserve goalkeeper Lee Grant, making only his second league appearance since January, made eight saves to keep United at bay and sometimes, it must be admitted, a dominant team can be unlucky in coming up against an inspired goalkeeper.
If so the same thing happened again in the next match. Burnley’s Tom Heaton was even more influential, managing to keep out United’s 11 shots on target (from a total of 38 goal attempts). The home side enjoyed 72% of possession and racked up 19 corners to Burnley’s one, which is a fair indication of dominance. But goals would not come. Either the goalkeeper was not pushed hard enough or the target was missed. Zlatan Ibrahimovic forced one of Heaton’s finest saves, the one that put everyone in mind of Peter Schmeichel, though the Swede was also guilty of missing the target completely later on with a much easier chance to win the game.
So does this amount to a double dose of goalkeeping heroics and therefore bad luck, or is there something amiss with United’s finishing ability? As a below-the-line comment appended to the match report on these pages pointed out, a darts player who keeps finding the wrong side of the wire and ending up with treble ones instead of treble 20s cannot keep bemoaning his luck, at some stage it will have to be admitted accuracy is the problem.
The Arsenal game threw up a slightly different conundrum. Even though United saw less of the ball than their opponents, with only 45% of possession, they created more, looked more aggressive and probably did enough to deserve victory. Considering the quality of the opposition, and the fact Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil were so well looked after they were hardly noticed after the first 20 minutes, it was one of United’s more convincing performances of the season.
At least it was for 89 minutes. That sort of impression tends to fall flat if opponents are allowed to score with their only attempt on target. Mourinho did not make his name by showing a soft underbelly or an inability to close out matches. When he was first at Chelsea he was fond of saying 1-0 is a perfectly acceptable scoreline as long as you know how to protect it. He cannot easily go from saying that to arguing United have been unlucky. Late equalisers are always hard to take but it is possible United were not even the unluckiest team in the Premier League last Saturday. Think about Swansea and West Ham, both playing away from home and similarly undone by late goals.
Cold statistics are of only limited help in this area. Are a team unlucky if they keep hitting the woodwork, or do they need more shooting practice? In any case United are nothing special in that department. They are mid-table with five strikes against the frame of the goal, whereas Bournemouth are runaway leaders with 13, followed by Manchester City, Spurs and Arsenal on seven. United are fifth in the table for shots on target, fifth in the one for possession, fourth best team in the league for total shots and eighth best for the most number of passes in the final third of the pitch. That all seems fairly consistent with the side’s position of sixth, nothing spooky going on there. What Mourinho may care to look at, before making any more statements to the effect the football gods are against him, are the stats for shooting accuracy and goals-to-shots ratio. The former shows United in eighth place, above Arsenal but less likely to hit the target than (among others) Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Spurs. The goals-to-shots ratio is even more damning. United are fifth from bottom. The top four are Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and City, in that order, with around one in five attempts producing a goal. United’s figure is 11.64%, suggesting they need almost twice as many shots to score. Only West Ham, Hull, Swansea and Southampton are less clinical.
That being so, a reasonable conclusion would be that while United have been frustrated by some excellent goalkeeping – although in Heaton’s case so have Liverpool and Everton – there is probably more they could do in and around the penalty area to improve their luck. They could be creating more clear-cut chances and they need to be accepting more of them.
As Mourinho still does not appear to have made his mind up about Wayne Rooney and the 35-year-old Ibrahimovic’s scoring rate is inevitably starting to slow, it could simply be United need a new striker. Or perhaps just someone dynamic and direct enough to make things happen in the final third. Step forward Henrikh Mkhitaryan, signed in the summer on exactly that basis and scarcely seen since. If glimpsed, as promised, against Feyenoord on Thursday, an opportunity surely awaits.
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