At what point does, seemingly, appalling luck become par for the course? Since Manchester United last picked up maximum points in a Premier League game, a very familiar pattern has played out: dominant in possession, much of the play, very few chances taken. Three matches, three 1-1 draws. It has left the Reds 13 points off the Premier League leaders.
United’s form over December and January could make or break the season. Fans will be familiar with that observation. Last season a win over Bournemouth would have taken Louis van Gaal’s team top of the table. It rapidly turned into a loss, followed by two more, and December’s run was pretty much the end of the line for most fans where it concerned the Dutchman.
José Mourinho must avoid a similar sequence of events this winter, although he’s starting from a stronger base. After all, United’s performances have been far less insipid than those under Van Gaal. It is postponing any supporter unrest.
Mourinho must be conscious of United’s league position though, with a final place outside the top four probably meaning the end of the road for the Portuguese manager at Old Trafford, as it was for Van Gaal and David Moyes before him.
Yet, the United manager can gain encouragement from his side’s performance against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday evening. In near-arctic conditions, United completed 772 passes on a pitch described by Daley Blind as being “like a rock” and in the process the visitors created 19 chances, scoring twice. While the conversion rate was low, as it is has been all season, United will take much from the victory in Ukraine.
Few supporters will be celebrating just yet though. Thursday’s victory could prove to be another false dawn, especially since United has made a habit of taking encouraging steps forward mid-week, before taking two back in the league. See Arsenal, West Ham United, and Everton as evidence.
Good performances don’t win football matches alone, something on which Mourinho built his reputation. And even the most hardened subscriber to ‘the United way’ will now take a scrappy 1-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.
After a less than impressive first few months in charge, Mourinho’s team is sixth, having earned more draws than wins, and any hope of challenging for the title is all but quashed.
“We should have much more points than we have because you look at the table and it looks like other teams are better than us which, in my opinion, is not true,” said Mourinho.
“So many draws that we deserve victories. If you could transform these draws into victories we would be very close to the top of the league. In terms of the quality of our game and the organisation of our football I think we are above what I would expect. In terms of results I am used to different results.”
As a result this weekend’s fixture with Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs becomes even more critical, with Mourinho’s United career likely to hinge on the fight for fourth. The Reds are six points behind fifth-placed Spurs, with the London side having slipped out of title contention, despite challenging last season.
This is certainly a long way from the days of “lad’s, it’s Tottenham.” Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement the series stands at two wins for United, two draws, and two losses. Those victories came under Van Gaal at Old Trafford. More recently United lost 3-0 loss at White Hart Lane in April.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Mourinho must be conscious of United’s league position, with a final place outside the top four probably meaning the end of the road for the Portuguese manager at Old Trafford, as it was for Van Gaal and Moyes before him.[/blockquote]
Yet, both sides must win to realise ambitions of European football next season. United’s new-found reliance on the Europa League as passage into next season’s Champions League is an unsustainable strategy given the club’s record in the tournament. Fourth place remains the club’s best bet.
Victory on Sunday is a must, with anything less a critical blow to Mourinho’s domestic hopes. Recent form suggests supporters temper their hopes.
Spurs cannot afford to give up any more ground in the Premier League, while Pochettino’s side crashed out of the Champions League at the group stage after qualifying for the first time since 2010. Being dumped back into the Europa League will leave a bitter taste, but with the team only three points behind Manchester City, Spurs are within touching distance of the top four. It should provide plenty of incentive on Sunday.
“We are out of the Champions League, but if we compare with last season, we have two points more in the Premier League and we are in the same position because we have got qualification for the next round of the Europa League,” said Pochettino.
“It’s a different Premier League than last season but we are happy with the way we are playing after the problems that we’ve had over the last month-and-a-half. We’ve had a lot of problems and injuries that last season we didn’t have.”
Mourinho could turn to Eric Bailly after relying on the precarious pairing of Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones in recent weeks. Jones is likely to partner Bailly given the volume of games Rojo has played of late, while Chris Smalling is not yet ready for the first team. Bailly has around two weeks back in the team before he heads off to the African Cup of Nations.
“Let’s hope Smalling can recover in time to replace him [Bailly] in the squad because, with so many matches, we need players. At the moment, we have Phil Jones, Bailly and Marcos Rojo. We play Tottenham, West Brom and Reading, West Ham away – in that period we have a lot of matches and it is important to have players,” added Mourinho.
United subs from: Romero, Fosu-Mensah, Rojo, Schneiderlin, Young, Blind, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger, Depay, Lingard, Rashford, Mata, Rooney
Spurs subs from: Vorm, Trippier, Davies, Dier, Wimmer, Carter-Vickers, Carroll, Winks, Onomah, Sissoko, Nkoudou
Left-back Luke Shaw is also out, with his stop-start United career an increasing concern. It leaves Matteo Darmian to reprise his role at left-back, with Antonio Valencia on the opposite flank.
In midfield Paul Pogba could be pushed forward, being deployed behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a 4-3-3 formation. The Swede suffered a spell of 13 games with one goal this season, but has bagged 13 goals in all competitions – a productive return for the 35-year-old free transfer.
Meanwhile, Henryk Mkhitaryan’s solo effort in Ukraine should be enough for the Armenian to retain his place on the right, with Anthony Martial coming in on the right after being rested on Thursday.Wayne Rooney drops to the bench after Mourinho admitted that “we expect more goals from him,” while Juan Mata also misses out.