MANCHESTER United have made their worst start to a domestic league season since 1989-90, following a 1-1 at home to West Ham United on Sunday (November 27).
The Red Devils created 17 chances – eight of which were on target – but spurned them all following Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s equaliser cancelling out Diafra Sakho’s opener after 91 seconds.
Frustration was palpable on and off the pitch as United manager Jose Mourinho was sent to the stands for the second time in November after he reacted furiously to Paul Pogba being booked for diving, booting a bottle ferociously down the touchline beneath the press box.
The last time United suffered such a poor start the infamous, “three years of excuses and it’s still crap … ta-ra Fergie” banner was displayed outside Old Trafford.
Is it the perils of the Uefa Europa League? The lack of a settled squad? The mounting number of injuries? One thing is certain – all is not well on the red side of Manchester…
Draws are costing them dearly at home
Old Trafford – a once feared environment in English football – is a place of grave concern for the Red Devils so far this season.
Without a home league win since the scintillating 4-1 September thumping of champions Leicester City, Mourinho’s side have been toothless against Burnley and West Ham United, whilst also failing to see out leads against Stoke City and Arsenal.
Joe Allen struck late for the Potters. Olivier Giroud struck late for the Gunners. A failure to learn lessons quickly and efficiently is almost handicapping United into score draws.
Mourinho’s predecessor, Dutchman Louis van Gaal, became famous for the turgid football he deployed through his teams week after week.
But, on reflection of the stats, his first season in charge having taken over from David Moyes brought more points than the Portuguese and with 11 points separating league leaders Chelsea and United, the notion of style over substance needs to evaporate.
Have the performances been as bad under Mourinho in comparison to Van Gaal or Moyes? Certainly not.
But this is a results driven business and with Antonio Conte’s Chelsea and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City both dismantling opposition with relative ease, Mourinho’s charges look incapable of challenging for the title crown.
Toothless in front of goal
There are so many times pundits, columnists and fans can bemoan bad luck in front of goal before the statisticians set the record straight.
Trawling back through the archives for the league goal tally each season provided a fascinating insight into the club’s current situation.
In both 1992-3 and 2002-03, United recorded fewer goals over the 13 games than Mourinho’s side have thus far yet finished both of those seasons as Champions of England.
That seems more than a stretch too far this time around – and times are undoubtedly different – but it should indicate that the club is far from riddled with crisis.
Talismanic Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the club’s top scorer in the league having scored seven goals – 38 per cent of United’s total of 18 goals.
Last season’s top scorer in the league, Anthony Martial, has struggled to pick up where he left off with just one goal to his name so far in this domestic term.
The Frenchman, who turns 21 on December 5, looked re-energised with his brace in the 4-1 EFL Cup quarter-final win over West Ham United on Wednesday and Mourinho will be hoping he can sustain the form in the forthcoming league games.
Marcus Rashford is another who has yet to find his golden touch of last term, albeit shunted out in a wide role to accommodate summer signing Ibrahimovic.
Three league goals already for Rashford however is closing in on his five strikes notched last term under Van Gaal, but through on goal against West Ham he looked unconvinced, and still lacking the clinical edge to his game that is needed to tear up the league at a top club.
It’s been all or nothing for the Reds so far in terms of goals.
They can put three past a hapless Swansea City side away from home and demolish Champions Leicester City 4-1 at home but look bereft of ideas away to Watford and Chelsea.
Those two trips to London saw seven goals conceded and just one scored – that is not just being beaten, that’s being humiliated.
And the reason behind those two damaging days? Midfield lynchpin Michael Carrick was not involved…
Michael Carrick is the key that unlocks the door for Mourinho
The stats just don’t lie about the man Alex Ferguson signed from Tottenham Hotspur in 2006 to replace midfield assassin Roy Keane.
Different styles entirely, but when the five-time Premier League champion Carrick starts, United do not lose.
Yet, the major drawback to the 35-year-old is that he needs managing as he cannot complete multiple games in any one week.
Three league appearances so far this season have all been without defeat – wins against Leicester City and Swansea City, with a draw at home to Arsenal.
The criticism so far has been Mourinho’s decision to deploy Carrick in cup competitions rather than preserve him for domestic fixtures.
A prominent figure in the Europa League wins over Feyenoord and Fenerbahce, many on the terraces want Carrick prioritised for games like Everton on Sunday, rather than what many feel are subordinate competitions in the EFL Cup and Europa League.
With a Premier League pass completion rate of over 90 per cent, it is the calmness that Carrick brings to the side that allows £89m summer signing Paul Pogba to flourish.
It has not been easy for Pogba since he joined from Juventus in the summer, but whenever he has been flanked by Carrick, the Frenchman has been given creative licence to showcase his talents further forward, with Carrick shielding the back four amicably.
You only need to realise that of Pogba’s four goals in all competitions this season, three occurred with Carrick by his side, and that is no coincidence.
The key for Mourinho is to figure out when he needs the talents of Carrick most – a strategic plan is in order given United remain in four competitions heading into 2017.
Is it too easy to blame the Europa League?
This remains one of the fiercest debates in football, and one that emerges time and time again based on one success, or more likely, failure.
League leaders Chelsea are flourishing without European football and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side are demonstrating similar given their Europe-free schedule.
That, however, is not bulletproof evidence that the Europa League is the root of domestic peril.
There have been five matches played after Europa League group matches so far in 2016-17 and with 15 points available, United have faired well below par in comparison to a variety of sides across the continent…
Many may question the strength of the league but an analysis of both Tottenham – who reached the Europa League quarter-finals last season – and finalists Liverpool, highlights how United’s Europa League troubles are not necessarily unavoidable.
To add some perspective: United, so far, have lost two games from the five corresponding fixtures after Europa League game weeks.
In reaching the quarter-finals, Spurs lost just twice in 10 outings, before going on to finish second in the Premier League as they sustained a strong title challenge until the penultimate round of fixtures.
And it could well be argued that the North London club possess far less options in the squad than the riches and luxuries afforded to a manager of United – excuses at Old Trafford wear very thin, very quickly and it is unlikely the ‘Europa League factor’ will wash.
Freshness is a factor. Concentration is a factor. Mental fatigue is a factor. But when the Reds have individuals like Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger starving for game-time, there is hardly a dearth of rotational options.
So therefore, does the blame lay at the feet of the enigmatic Portuguese manager?
Is Mourinho to blame?
The Portuguese divides opinion, that much remains unquestionable.
And while it is difficult to get on board with the notion of an FA conspiracy against him, there appears particular scrutiny on the former Real Madrid and Chelsea boss.
Sent to the stands by referee Jonathan Moss for kicking a bottle drawing the 1-1 draw with West Ham United, it marked the 15th time in his career that he’d been shown red.
He doesn’t appear to be enjoying the game anymore; on the touchline stands a man that appears angry and that cynicism cannot benefit his players.
Bar his disastrous last stint at Chelsea, his 13 match points haul at United is his worst as manager over the past seven seasons
- REAL MADRID: 2010-11 – 10 wins, 2 draws [32 points, 13 games]
- REAL MADRID: 2011-12 – 11 wins, 1 draw [34 points, 13 games]
- REAL MADRID: 2012-13 – 8 wins, 2 draws [26 points, 13 games]
- CHELSEA: 2013-14 – 8 wins, 3 draws [27 points, 13 games]
- CHELSEA: 2014-15 – 10 wins, 3 draws [33 points, 13 games]
- CHELSEA: 2015-16 – 4 wins, 2 draws [14 points, 13 games]
- MAN UNITED: 2016-17 – 5 wins, 5 draws [20 points, 13 games]
Yet many fans will agree that the football under Mourinho has been more expansive and attacking than that of his predecessor.
United have created 164 chances, albeit scoring just 18, but should the Reds find their shooting boots, it could spell real trouble for opponents in their way.
But with a 11 per cent conversation rate there is an issue and ultimately it’s affected the points tally – a comparison of matches this season and last shows that United come away with 13 points, in comparison to the 15 from last term.
Everton provide the opposition on Sunday as the Reds travel to Goodison Park in search of vital points as the leading pack are beginning to put on the afterburners.
A revived Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba need to justify both their price and selection now.
The Toffees are struggling; demolished at Stamford Bridge 5-0 by Conte’s Chelsea, held at home 1-1 by Bob Bradley’s Swansea City and undone inside one minute by Charlie Austin and Southampton last time out, they are there for the taking.
But with just one point separating the Reds in sixth and the Blues in seventh, the anguish around United could intensify if Sunday proves to be yet another missed opportunity.