Manchester United failed to record victory against one of the Premier League’s top fives sides on Sunday – it was the fifth time in six matches in this particular group that the Reds have come away with fewer than three points. Defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, together with draws against Arsenal and Liverpool, leaves José Mourinho’s team with the worst head-to-head record between the top six. Progress at Old Trafford is genuine, but save for victory over Spurs, it is largely based on beating those below United in the table. With Champions League qualification far from guaranteed, this pattern is Mourinho’s most critical challenge over the next five months.
Indeed, points against direct opposition for Champions League places will have a multiplied impact on this season’s final placings, with United facing four matches against opponents in the top five before the end of May. That’s 12 potential points for United – and 12 that could go the other way. To make United’s cause just a little more challenging, three of those fixtures will be away from home: at Spurs, Manchester City and Arsenal, with Chelsea visiting Old Trafford in mid-April.
In the head-to-head record among the top six United averages just a single point per game, with a negative goal difference as well. In contrast, Sunday’s opponent Liverpool remains unbeaten against the top six group.
More broadly, in a season where competition for the European places is perhaps more intense that at any time since 2008/9, some forecasts suggest that it could take more than 76 points for United to claim a Champions League spot. Or to put that another way, an average of 2.11 points per game from here in. Mourinho’s team averaged 1.9 points per game from the first 21 fixtures of the league campaign.
Beyond the top six, United’s record against the top half of the Premier League is below par too, with the Reds ranking eighth in the head-to-head among that group. Mourinho’s flat-track bullies rank third in games against teams from the bottom half. If improvement is required, and in truth there has been much stronger form from mid-November onwards, it must come against the country’s better teams.
The challenge for Mourinho in that narrative is the precious little evidence that points to strong performances against the Premier League’s form teams. Back in September the Reds lost a thrilling derby against City at Old Trafford, in a game the Blues thoroughly dominated for a half, before United staged a strong finish. In selecting Jesse Lingard and Henryk Mkhitaryan, two players struggling for fitness, and Marouane Fellaini, suffering from a three-year loss of form, Mourinho got his first big challenge of the season wrong.
“The two halves were completely different,” he claimed. “In the first half we were below the level to play this match. You have to be completely ready in terms of the speed of your thinking and decision-making. The second half was completely different. We were a team that had the courage and honesty and dignity to chase the result.”
By October, with United’s domestic and European campaigns off to a rocky start, Mourinho parked the bus at Anfield, approaching a difficult tie with the kind of opportunistic safety-first pragmatism for which he is infamously known. The visitors enjoyed just 35 per cent possession on Merseyside, which was United’s lowest in a Premier League match since Opta began recording the data more than a decade ago.
Heavy defeat followed in short order at Chelsea, where Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia contributed heavily to Mourinho’s humiliating return to Stamford Bridge. “We made incredible defensive mistakes,” said Mourinho. “And then you pay for that.” The Reds certainly did, and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea hasn’t looked back.
United’s home tie with Arsenal in mid-November came amid a run of disappointing draws, where Mourinho’s team was beginning to come together, but often failed to secure maximum points. Olivier Giroud’s last-minute equaliser earned Arsenal a point that the Gunners barely deserved, prompting Mourinho to call his outfit the “unluckiest team in the Premier League” in a rare moment of Moyseian self-doubt.
It wasn’t true, of course. United’s problem through the autumn was in failing to capitalise on superiority, not ill fortune. Victory over Spurs in a tight game at Old Trafford before Christmas brought Mourinho his only victory over a top six side to date.
There is no guarantee of easier fixtures to come though. Mourinho’s team travels to the Etihad Stadium just three days after a Europa League Round of 32 away fixture at Saint Etienne. Should United qualify for the League Cup final the City fixture will be postponed, possibly to a mid-week in April or, if the TV companies get their way, May.
United then faces Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea inside a pivotal month from mid-April to mid-May. First up, Champions-elect Chelsea visit Old Trafford on 15 April, where Mourinho must improve United’s record of having failed to beat the west Londonders in eight games.
Mourinho’s side visits the Emirates in early May, in what is almost certain to be a pivotal fixture in the battle for Champions League places. Then comes the trip to White Hart Lane, a ground that has held many happy memories for United supporters over the years. This, however, is a very different Spurs than the one Sir Alex Ferguson once brutally dismissed as “lads, it’s Tottenham.” In Mauricio Pochettino Spurs probably boasts one of the top five coaches in European football, together with a squad that is worthy of second place in the Premier League.
The good news for United is that aside from those four games – against City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs – Mourinho’s side faces a favourable fixture list over the next 17 games. While there is necessarily a lot of cup football to come, the Reds play Stoke City, Leicester City, Hull City and Watford before that trip to the Etihad. Then there are games against Bournemouth, Middlesbrough, West Bromwich Albion, Everton, and Sunderland before the fixture with Chelsea. More than enough winnable fixtures for a Mourinho side that is happy to beat up on the league’s lesser lights.
United will need plenty of points in those games, of course, but its the fixtures against direct rivals that will surely determine whether Mourinho’s team feasts at the top table of European football next season – or not. It’s likely to be very tight.