Sunday 22 September 2019

Jamie Carragher: Jose Mourinho's shocking record against his rivals must change now if Manchester United are to win the title

Pochettino and Mourinho
Pochettino and Mourinho

Jamie Carragher

Jose Mourinho is entering a defining period in his Manchester United reign.

Nine games into his second season might sound ridiculously premature for such a declaration but this feels like a huge week for Mourinho.

The next two Premier League games – home to Tottenham and away to Chelsea – will tell us how equipped this United team is to go to-toe-with Manchester City. It will be much clearer whether Mourinho can replicate at Old Trafford what he has done throughout his managerial career – swiftly delivering a title.

The gap to City is now five points. That is nothing to worry about at the moment, particularly as the clubs must still meet twice.

But the first significant questions have been asked of United's championship credentials, the defeat at Huddersfield following a dour draw at Liverpool.

Remember what Jose said when United made their good start this season?

"I didn't think for one single second about Manchester City."

If that gap extends to eight or nine points over the next fortnight, City will be the only club on his mind. City play West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal next and I expect they will collect a minimum of four points. United must keep the pace. To do that they have to make a statement in the next two games.

If not, they will spend the next few months playing catch-up. Psychologically, I believe that will represent a major swing in City's favour. It would not be an insurmountable lead, of course, but it would mean City can afford a slip without looking over their shoulder.

Mourinho is not used to being the hunter at this point of a reign.

Wherever he has been as manager for the last 15 years the improvement has been rapid. Within two years of his appointment at Porto, Chelsea (twice), Inter Milan and Real Madrid, he won the league. At Chelsea first time around and Inter he did this within 12 months.

From his third season onwards, certainly in more recent times, it has appeared he has achieved his targets and is already thinking about his next challenge – or the club's board have sought a change from his unique and demanding style of management.

The task at United is proving tougher. It was always going to be difficult to reproduce his previous levels of success given the number of Premier League challengers, especially with Pep Guardiola arriving at City at the same time.

Neither Mourinho nor Guardiola have gone two years in a job without a title. If they do not win one of the big trophies this May this season will be seen as a failure.

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That sounds harsh as both can make tangible progress this year without lifting the Premier League, but that is the world these two live.

Such are the expectations, and such are the trends in Mourinho and Guardiola's career, one of them is about to enter unchartered territory. They would start a third year in Manchester under immense pressure.

We knew when they arrived the Mourinho v Guardiola rivalry would eventually work its way towards a Premier League challenge. This looks like the year, but despite United making quality additions over the summer City have improved far more than many expected.

The Spurs and Chelsea games are particularly significant given Mourinho's recent record against the rest of the top six. When he first came to English football he was the master of these meetings. If you go back to 2004 his record is exceptional. In his first three seasons at Chelsea he took 78 points from 90 against the rest of the top six. He returned to Chelsea in 2013 and took 40 out of 60 points from those games over two years.

There has been a dip since his last title in 2015. Mourinho has played 11 games against the rest of the top six at Manchester United. He has won two.

Most worrying, his side has scored only seven goals. This is a shocking statistic for one of the most expensively assembled squads in the world.

It has to change now. If it does not, United cannot win the title.

The Premier League top six is stronger than 15 years ago. When Mourinho arrived at Chelsea the double-headers against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool had a major influence on how the Champions League places were arranged.

Today, there are more of these games. We can extend it to six clubs: 30 points from ten fixtures that shift the balance at the top.

Mourinho has built his reputation on being the manager who always finds a way to win, particularly the games that matter most. He needs to rediscover that touch. As demonstrated at Anfield most recently, he is still adept at stopping the opponent, but less successful turning stalemates into victories.

Away from home, in the latter years at Chelsea and now Manchester United, there is another identifiable slump. In his last 11 away games against those you would consider direct rivals, he has failed to win a match, losing six. In eight of those fixtures his team did not score. The five points he collected were due to 0-0 draws.

Mourinho's approach in these games has never changed. He is a reactive rather than proactive coach. His philosophy works on the basis the opponent will make a mistake and then it is time to pounce. It has brought him huge success in his career.

There were suggestions last summer that Mourinho would evolve; that his first season was always going to be about bedding in, winning the cup competitions and building the team. This year he would be more proactive at places like Anfield, Stamford Bridge and The Etihad.

I never believed that. I don't think he will ever change. The performance at Liverpool proved that.

At full-time at Anfield I felt the criticism of his approach unjust. It was a decent point, but on one condition. United had to beat Huddersfield. Any draw is only a good result if you win the next game.

By full-time at Huddersfield one point from six is a poor return.

The fact Spurs exposed the weakness of Liverpool's back four made it even worse.

For the first time, I sensed some United fans were questioning Mourinho's cautious approach, wishing he had shown more ambition on Merseyside.

It reminded me of last season, when Mourinho set-up at Anfield the same way and a week later his side was well beaten at Chelsea.

United found themselves stuck in 7th and eventually 6th for months. No matter how much their form improved, they were never able to make inroads into the top four. Would they be capable of clawing a City lead back if they lose ground now? I do not think so.

If the Spurs and Chelsea games follow the recent trend the seeds of doubt will grow.

Something has to give this weekend if United and Spurs are to prove they will last the pace.

Mourinho must re-assert his authority against stellar opponents or Mauricio Pochettino has to reverse an equally poor away record at such venues.

Pochettino has won one of 15 away games against top six rivals since taking over at Tottenham in 2014. Spurs cannot win the title without this radically improving, and the loss of Harry Kane this weekend is a serious setback.

Whoever gets it right will have jockeyed themselves into an ideal position alongside City. This is the point when the dynamics of the title race take shape. There is a stop-start feel to the season until now because the international breaks upset the flow. Once they are out of the way you get a sense who the real challengers are.

If United do not deliver in the next two weeks, Jose will not be waiting for just one mistake from Pep over the next few months. He will need many if he is to continue his extraordinary habit of instantly delivering league titles wherever he turns up.

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