For about 70 minutes on the evening of 6 October, the proud occupants of the ‘theatre of dreams’ were living a nightmare. Two goals down to 18th-placed Newcastle and tied at the 90th minute, before a header by Alexis Sanchez gave Manchester United its first home win in five matches and saved their manager’s job.
Sterner tests lie ahead for Manchester United, currently a distant eighth in the English Premier League (EPL), and Jose Mourinho, grumpy and defiant. In their next six games over 22 days, beginning this Saturday, United play second-place Chelsea away, Juventus and Ronaldo at home and away, and a trip across town to the club that is now what it once used to be—champions and current table-toppers Manchester City. Mourinho remains a marked man.
Mourinho was marked from the day he descended on Old Trafford, in the long shadows of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26-year reign that scripted trophies and stories at every turn. However, Mourinho’s troubles begin at Old Trafford, where Manchester United is not winning or imposing itself as it did under Ferguson.
The Ferguson template was to be solid away and spectacular at home. Mourinho’s Manchester United has been decent away but shaky at home. Under Mourinho, now in his third year, Manchester United is averaging 2 points per game in the EPL, with two spotty years sandwiching the good year that was 2017-18. The last three-year period in which United averaged this low at its bastion was in 1989-92.
Since Ferguson’s retirement, Manchester United has not won handsomely at home. Its average number of wins at home per game played has dived from a high of 0.9 (or 9/10 games) during 2007-13 to a meagre 0.6 before Mourinho and 0.5 (or 5/10 games) under Mourinho.
According to midfielder Paul Pogba, who is playing joint lead in this simmering Mourinho drama, Manchester United are not attacking enough. In the EPL, the number of times that Manchester United have scored a lead-taking goal (either the first goal or subsequent goals that gave United the lead)—one measure of intent and success in attack—has dropped visibly since 2012-13, Ferguson’s last season.
In 2012-13, 92% of the goals scored by Manchester United were in the nature of lead-taking. In the 13 seasons since 2000-01, the period for which this data is available, Ferguson averaged 85% lead-taking goals and that translated into a high win ratio. In 2013-14, following the debacle under David Moyes, this plunged to 61%. For Mourinho, this figure reads 63%, 74% and 63%.
In Manchester United, Mourinho has seemed to place safety above valour. A metric to measure this is the number of equalizers conceded, indicating a team’s ability to hold on to leads. On this, Mourinho leaves even Ferguson in the shade. But given its lower lead-taking ability, the net result for Manchester United translates into fewer wins. In their last game, Manchester United turned around a 2-0 deficit against Newcastle in the second half, with Mourinho moving Pogba and Nemanja Matic to support the central defence.
Mourinho has publicly bemoaned the lack of a strong central defence in Manchester United and has been visibly frustrated by the lack of action in the summer transfer market, with defender Diogo Dalot and midfielder Fred being the only arrivals. In the Mourinho narrative, the decision by club chief executive Ed Woodward to hold back, by Manchester United’s massive standards, in buying players is also cited as a flashpoint.
Besides their performance at home, player-buying tendencies at Manchester United have also changed since Ferguson departed. Under Ferguson, Manchester United was characterized by a young core, either bought from other clubs or drafted from the club’s under-19 and under-23 teams. This was best typified by the ‘class of ’92’, featuring David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes—all of whom would form a strong and enduring core for Ferguson.
Manchester United is more of a carousel now and successive managers have struggled to build an enduring core. In the last five seasons, the club, which has money to splurge, has been throwing its weight behind tried-and-tested talent, like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Juan Mata, Alexis Sanchez and Angel di Maria. As a result, the average age of incoming players in the last five years is higher than it was in most of Ferguson’s tenure.
Manchester United are scoring less and winning less. And Mourinho is a marked man at Old Trafford.
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