Sunday 18 August 2019

Comment - Negativity giving Jose Mourinho travel sickness

Manchester United's manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Getty Images
Manchester United's manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Deep into this game, a chant of "20 times, 20 times Man United" arrived as a murmur from the visitors' end. This faint reference to the number of titles won by Old Trafford's residents will probably not need rewriting in May.

Jose Mourinho's team are now 16/1 to win the Premier League. Their neighbours, City, are 1/6.

Bookmakers are not omniscient gods, and odds can change, but there was enough in these 'Super Sunday' results to suggest Mourinho is going to be outplayed this season by Pep Guardiola and his sky-blue orchestra.

Gone are United's sauntering 4-0 wins of early autumn, along with the freedom in their play. Wherever you stand on Mourinho's pragmatism - his structural approach to big games - there is no mistaking the sense of a side losing their impetus.

"Powerful team against powerful team," is how the United manager described this collision of his present and past employers.

Slapping gloss on a loss, Mourinho claimed United "had initiative, courage, dynamism and the chances to equalise, which would have been a fair result". Another interpretation would be: United played too conservatively, fell behind and then had to chase the game, throwing on Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and the giant heading machine Marouane Fellaini to besiege Chelsea in the last 15 minutes.

Conceding a goal to the English champions and then chucking the kitchen sink at them is not, by itself, a bad afternoon's work. But there are deeper reservations now about United's modus operandi.

At Chelsea and now at United, Mourinho has not won an away match against top-six opposition since January 2015. In that time, he has lost six and drawn five. On the road, negation has been one of his managerial calling cards. But it's serving him less well now.

The current patchy run started with a shop-shutting display at Anfield, where a soporific 0-0 draw seemed to send all the wrong messages to his players. Then they lost 2-1 at Huddersfield, and while a subsequent 1-0 home win over Spurs was from the top drawer of results, United seem to have abandoned the swagger they had at the start of this campaign.

The names of the victims tell a story: Crystal Palace, Everton, Swansea and West Ham, all slapped 4-0. But then they were anodyne at Anfield - and things have not been the same since. In racing, you can 'disappoint' a horse in a race by boxing it in, and often it never gets going again.

United have enough attacking players to go after every opponent bar Man City, but they choose not to. All it has brought them is an eight-point gap to City.

It has turned them mechanical and cautious again: the curse their fans thought they were finally escaping.

Opta say that in United's first three away games they had 20 shots on target, scored seven goals and claimed seven points. In the last three, they have managed six shots on target, one goal and one point. There is no disguising that trend. And all the while United, like Chelsea and Spurs, face the colossal problem of how to be more effective points-accumulators than City.

Spurs are playing their own way, and smashing Real Madrid in the process, while Chelsea grope for last season's stability and purpose (they found it here).

United, on the other hand, appear to believe the conservatism Mourinho conceived for big away fixtures is still the best bet in 2017-18. Recent results and performances suggest otherwise.

Let's ignore the manager for a minute and turn to some of the players who have lost their way. With less ambition across the side, Romelu Lukaku has become isolated and less well-served from the attacking midfield areas. Here, Lukaku had 24 touches, but none in the Chelsea box.

Behind him Henrikh Mkhitaryan was invisible and his inconsistency is making him an expensive luxury. And the attack potential of Lukaku, Martial and Marcus Rashford is being muted.

Mourinho says he never uses injuries as an excuse - then uses injuries as an excuse. He also seeks comfort in numbers - the pack chasing City.

"We are worried (about the gap), but there are 18 teams more worried than us because we are second," he said.

"Eight points, in the Premier League, is not the same as in the Portuguese League, La Liga, the Bundesliga. Eight points in the Premier League, there's still a lot to play for.

"I hope, I feel, I wish that in the busy period of late November, December, beginning of January, I think probably we are going to be at our maximum strength with Pogba, Rojo and Ibra back, with everyone who has been missing for the last few months, so probably we can be in a high."

Happiness deferred, positivity postponed? This has too often been United's story in the last four seasons. Sometimes you just wish they would have a go before they are forced to. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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