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Predictability and lack of X factor feeds into Manchester United’s lucklessness

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Manchester United’s disappointing Premier League form: is it bad luck or suspect management? José Mourinho will attempt to answer that question yet again when Tottenham Hotspur visit Old Trafford on Sunday.

Related: José Mourinho demands more goals from Manchester United

At the start of the weekend United were in sixth place, 13 points behind the leaders, Chelsea, nine adrift of Manchester City, who occupy the final Champions League berth, and six worse off than Sunday’s opponents. Such margins represent a yawning gap for Mourinho, who began the campaign talking of a title challenge and for whom qualification for next season’s Champions League is the bare minimum goal.

Mourinho’s standard response to his side’s underachievement has been to say that United are the victims of bad fortune. He points to the six draws from 14 matches and protests that against Stoke (1-1), Liverpool (0-0), Burnley (0-0), Arsenal, West Ham and Everton (all 1-1) United were the dominant side and deserved to win the majority of these games.

There is some truth in that view, but more glaring is United’s lack of goals, which he flagged up following Thursday’s Europa League win against Zorya. Two goals in those six draws is hardly the United way and Mourinho points to a lack of chances being created and a problem finishing those chances that his side do fashion.

United have managed 19 Premier League goals, five shy of fifth-placed Tottenham’s total. Before Saturday’s games United had 11 fewer than City and trailed 16 behind third-placed Liverpool (the highest tally), 14 behind Arsenal and 13 behind Chelsea.

Ill-fortune cannot solely be blamed on United’s current travails: one or two draws perhaps, but six? What is eluding Mourinho is the X factor that separates champions from the rest, and that he has only twice kept the same team for consecutive games indicates he still does not know his best XI.

Despite stating at the outset that he wanted to play aggressive football, Mourinho’s United can be the same becalmed side they were under Louis van Gaal and David Moyes before him. The sight of the side’s quickest forwards – Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, and Jesse Lingard – breaking at speed and scattering an opposition defence in the off-cuff manner of Sir Alex Ferguson’s best sides remains a rarity.

During this new era of enhanced competitiveness, when Leicester City can be champions and five teams vie for this year’s title, United’s cavalier style of old may be consigned to sepia. But, as Liverpool and the rest show, goals can be scored at more than two a game: United’s rate is barely more than one. They are too predictable, the result of a prescribed style that features a too patient buildup that is simpler to stifle. That means chances are rarer, so they have to be taken ruthlessly.

Clearly, this is not happening, as Mourinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic said on Thursday. After 14 games each, United’s 230 shots ranked above Arsenal (207) and Chelsea (218), yet their conversion rate has been 11.4% – the poorest of the top six. Spurs were next with 13.3%, then City (17.4%), Liverpool (19%), Chelsea (19.8) and Arsenal. Arsenal’s 21.7% from the lowest number of shots best illustrates the premium on lethal marksmen.

United’s hugely remunerated strikers are costing United points. Before this weekend’s games, Ibrahimovic had scored eight league goals, three fewer than Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez and Chelsea’s Diego Costa, two fewer than City’s Sergio Agüero and one better than the seven of Liverpool’s Sadio Mané, who is not a dedicated No9. Spurs’ centre-forward Harry Kane has scored one goal fewer than the Swede, despite injury limiting him to 762 minutes, compared with Ibrahimovic’s 1,170. The latter’s 51.1% shooting accuracy is the lowest of the top six’s highest scorers (Agüero is next with 58.7%), as is his 17% conversion rate (the next, again, is Agüero, with 21.7%).

Eight goals from 14 starts before this weekend is an impressive return from Ibrahimovic, but there is a question of how age has affected a player who was not always the quickest and how this slows United. Would Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, City or Spurs really consider a centre-forward in his mid‑30s as the leader of the attack? Antonio Conte, Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino are all managers whose ethos is based on quick movement. Given the lightning pace of Rashford and Martial allows United to attack far more quickly, how many of the draws might have been wins had Mourinho selected either at No9?

As Mourinho says, Ibrahimovic does deserve better support. A total of 11 league goals from elsewhere is not good enough. Juan Mata and Rashford have claimed three, Paul Pogba two, then Martial, the muted Wayne Rooney and the defender Chris Smalling, one each.

A concerning fault line also exists at the back. Undoubtedly, Mourinho did suffer bad luck when Smalling and Eric Bailly, the first-choice centre-backs, were seriously injured almost concurrently, but both started in the 4-0 thumping at Chelsea in October that began with Pedro’s goal after 30 seconds.

Conceding early and late goals is proving particularly costly and suggests a lack of focus. Three goals have been scored against them inside the opening 15 minutes – with West Ham’s Diafro Sakho pouncing on 90 seconds in the 1-1 draw, and City’s Kevin De Bruyne finding the net after 14 minutes in that 2-1 defeat.

Goals conceded from 80 minutes onwards amount to five. Stoke’s Joe Allen scored on 81 minutes to ensure United dropped two points. On 82 minutes Juan Camilo Zúñiga put Watford ahead in a 3-1 defeat for United when Troy Deeney scored four minutes into added time. Last Sunday, Leighton Baines’s 88th-minute penalty meant two more points were dropped and, before that, Olivier Giroud’s 88th-minute header denied United victory against Arsenal.

All of this is painful for Mourinho, his squad and the fans. As Phil Jones said: “We are losing too many points now, it’s becoming a common trend and we need to put that right quick. I can think of four or five games now where we have dominated but not managed to win.”

The trend has to stop soon, starting against Spurs on Sunday. If not, even Champions League football will be beyond Mourinho in his first season at Old Trafford – unless United can win the Europa League, that is. And that will rely on more than a spot of good fortune.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jamie Jackson, for The Observer on Saturday 10th December 2016 21.59 Europe/London

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