Manchester United drew 0-0 against West Brom on Saturday, proving that they are suffering from Jose Mourinho’s defensive ways.
Throughout his years at Chelsea, Mourinho was, and justifiably so, branded as a defensive-minded manager, a coach who heralded the importance of the clean sheet over the glory of a four-goal thrashing. It was a tactic that, for the most part, served him well. He won successive Premier League titles during his first stint with the club and then replicated that success more recently, waltzing to the title in the 2014/15 season.
Such success was, predictably, founded on defensive fortitude. He built formidable back fours on both occasions, supported by a miserly defensive shield and a reliable goalkeeper. In their first title in 2005, Chelsea conceded just 15 goals. The next closest were Manchester United on 26. The very next year, when they again sauntered to a title with an eight-point chasm between them and everyone else come May, Chelsea conceded only 22 goals. The next closest that year were Liverpool on 25.
And then in the 2014/15 season, Mourinho’s third title with the London club, his team conceded only 32 goals, the next best being Southampton with 33. However, during all those seasons, Chelsea were able to win games thanks to their ability to score crucial goals, grinding out the all-important 1-0 victories. But that was not thanks to Mourinho and his style of play. It was due to the individual brilliance of certain players within the squad.
In the early years, it was the pace of Arjen Robben, the power and brute force of Didier Drogba, the piercing late runs of Frank Lampard. More recently, Mourinho relied on the ingenuity and creativity of Cesc Fabregas, the remarkable skill and balance of Eden Hazard and the ruthlessness of Diego Costa.
Now at Manchester United, Mourinho has instilled the same approach that has brought him great success throughout his career. The issues have come, though, with the quality of his squad, especially in attacking areas. No longer does he have players of the calibre of Hazard, Lampard of Drogba. He must now lay the attacking responsibility on players like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata. They are good players who could well bloom in the right system. But Mourinho’s style is dependent on great players. That’s why Zlatan Ibrahimovic is so crucial to United’s prospects.
On numerous occasions, the imposing, domineering, dominating Swede has singlehandedly won games. He was the spearhead for United’s League Cup triumph against Southampton, a game in which they were mostly outplayed. He scored a hat-trick against St Etienne to see United through in the Europa League. He rescued a draw with a late header against Liverpool immediately after a run in which he’d scored in four of the last five games – five goals in total – with United winning all five.
And on Saturday, as Mourinho’s side looked to close the gap on the top four after leapfrogging a free-falling Arsenal two weeks previous, they were tepid against a resolute and determined West Brom, guided by ever-resilient Tony Pulis. United dominated possession with 75% but were unable to create major openings, enjoying just three shots on target.
Mourinho’s United have now just five more points than David Moyes’ fateful year at the same point, scoring four fewer goals. When you consider that approximately £440 million have been spent on players, including a world-record fee for Paul Pogba, then it is clear to see that struggles that United are having as a result of Mourinho’s approach.
As always, he will look to spend his way out of trouble. And if he is able to bring in the elite attacking talent that he is so dependent upon, then success will come United’s way. But until that point, there could well be more pain ahead.