Wednesday night’s draw with Hull was a frustrating one on so many levels as we once again failed to capitalise on those above us by drawing a very winnable game. If it was understandable at Stoke, then it was unacceptable here. I was at the game on Wednesday night and if all our problems this season could have been summarised in a 90 minute performance then this was it. The progress under Mourinho is evident and I’m encouraged by the fact we are still fighting on four fronts but in terms of the league it seems to be one step forward two steps back at the moment. In this article I'll take a look at what is costing us.
Premier League form table (home)
7. Man City
8. Man United
Home form Despite an undoubted improvement in the attacking intent shown at Old Trafford this year, the stats unfortunately show the harsh reality of our failures. We have fallen short in winning half of our home games and currently rank not only as the lowest of the top six but behind Burnley and Everton too. More alarming is the fact that the last two visits of Liverpool and Hull have perhaps been the most underwhelming performances of the lot. Although no less damaging, draws at home to Burnley, Stoke and Arsenal were at least accompanied by performances where we thoroughly deserved to win. Any team can claim their fair share of ifs and buts yet it’s been such fine margins when it comes to our results at Old Trafford. Failing to convert guilt edge chances (Hull, Burnley, West Ham) or hold onto a lead in the last 5 minutes (Stoke, Arsenal) has cost our title and potentially top four chances dearly. Shots (shots on target) in last 3 home draws: Hull City – 16 (6) Liverpool – 9 (3) West Ham – 17 (8) Shots (shots on target) in the first 3 home draws: Arsenal – 12 (5) Stoke – 24 (9) Burnley – 38 (11)
Team selection Criticising team selection is often far too easy and well aided by the power of hindsight (see Arsenal Fan TV for examples- and laughs!). I wrote last month that Mourinho seemed to have found a settled and functioning starting 11 with plenty of promising options from the bench. Barring the left wing slot his team selections in the league have been fairly consistent since then, though there has been the odd questionable mishap. The decision to rest both Carrick and introduce Juan Mata at Stoke seemed to backfire, but they were hardly contentious decisions given the formers age and the latter’s form. The came Wigan and we saw Anthony Martial recover from a slow start to register 2 assists and a goal that was only disallowed due to a teammate’s infringement. His omission from the starting XI against Hull thus came as a surprise but in Marcus Rashford the replacement wasn’t too disappointing. What was disappointing was Mourinho’s failure to bring on the Frenchman in a game that was screaming out for his injection of power and directness. Yet what we saw instead was Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata introduced as the struggling Rashford remained on the pitch. Mourinho was of course hampered by the forced substitution of Jones but who’s to say he wouldn’t have favoured Lingard as his final substitute; such seems to be his stubbornness over Martial.
Converting chances Not taking our chances has been a hallmark of our season and so it proved again last night. We dominated without being remarkable but the chances passed up by Paul Pogba and Juan Mata were an all too familiar sight for a side that ranks 18th in the Premier League chance conversion chart with 8.44 per cent. Eldin Jakupovic had a decent game when called upon but unlike Grant, Heaton and Randolph before him he was hardly forced to play out of his skin. We simply didn’t test him often enough and when we did create openings our poor finishing was at fault rather than anything spectacular from the Swissman. Our over-reliance on Zlatan Ibrahimovic is becoming apparent too. He’s contributed a mightily impressive19 goals and 4 assists this season and when he doesn’t score, the likes of Mata, Pogba, Rashford, Rooney, Mhkitaryan and Martial need to supplement this. Unfortunately they aren’t doing it on a consistent enough basis.
Failing to gain ground Once again the teams above us have dropped points and once again we’ve responded by not securing a win. It wasn’t just one or even two of our top six rivals but all four of Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea stumbled this week. Despite their recent improvements under Silva, Hull at home represented a golden opportunity and you’d probably have picked this as the perfect game for 3 points. Whilst our unbeaten run has been impressive since beating Tottenham on December 11th the only top six opposition we’ve faced has been Liverpool at home. In that time there have been 6 occasions in which those above us have faced each other. 04/02/2017 Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal 31/01/2017- Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea 21/01/2017- Man City 2-2 Spurs 04/01/2017- Spurs 2-0 Chelsea
31/01/2017- Liverpool 1-0 Man City 18/12/2017- Man City 2-1 Arsenal After that Tottenham game we were 6 points adrift of the top four and in 6th position. Currently we are 4 points away from the top four and still lie in 6th. To have made just two points worth of progress in that period underlines our failure to take advantage. The recent results against Stoke and Hull have been the main contributors to this and we simply cannot afford to drop more points at Leicester this weekend. Losses for Arsenal and Liverpool mean we have once again been gifted with the chance to catch up, let’s ensure we take it.
All information/stats gathered from: http://www.soccerstats.com/homeaway.asp?league=england, http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/, http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport
As we stretch past the mid-way point in this Premier League season a couple of things are starting to look fairly nailed on. The first one is that Hull City will need a minor miracle to survive the drop and secondly, we can almost certainly presume who the top 6 are going to be. In which order they’ll end up is where it gets interesting though. Whilst Chelsea still retain a commanding position, their recent defeat at Tottenham capped off a festive period in which the title chasing top four all managed to drop points. It was Spurs’ fifth league win in a row and when you couple that with our six game winning streak then all of a sudden it looks incredibly tasty at the top. Only four Premier League campaigns have produced a tighter gap between the top 6 at this stage of the season. Our position remains the weakest but we’ve done our Champions League ambitions a world of good and in the process seem to have assembled our strongest side going forward. As for the title, we currently lie 10 points off Chelsea and any hopes of us lifting the trophy come May seem like wishful thinking.
Optimistic – Title challenge
A tilt at the title seems unlikely but it’s not out of reach. The most optimistic of our fans will point to deficits overturned in the past, most notably our 1996 triumph over Keegan’s Newcastle who were 9 points clear with a game in hand in early January. After this many games last season Spurs lay 7 points off top in 4th and went on to mount a title challenge, albeit unsuccessfully. At the same point in 14/15 we were 12 points adrift of Mourinho’s Chelsea yet went into April’s game at Stamford Bridge knowing a win would put us within 5 points of them with 6 games to go. Now, we were always highly unlikely to win the league that year and whilst Tottenham’s was a possibility, the required points tally to challenge is likely to be much higher this year. However it does show that if a team is adrift in the New Year then mightily impressive form can catapult you back into the title picture. If we to beat Liverpool at Old Trafford next week then we’d be within two or three (dependant on how Spurs do) points of second place with the momentum of 7 straight wins behind us. Like everybody else, we’d be relying on Chelsea to start stuttering but with plenty of games to go I’d consider us legitimately back in the race.
Eden Hazard scores the only and decisive goal in a game dominated by United at Stamford Bridge 18th April 2015
Realistic – Top four
In the early days of this season many of us would have been quietly considering ourselves as potential contenders for the league. We had Mourinho, we’d made four impressive summer signings and had collected three wins from three. However it soon became apparent that much more was needed to turn the situation of the last three years around and that a place in the top four may be a much more realistic aim. Defeats to City, Watford and Chelsea hit hard and despite an upturn in performances after that Stamford Bridge walloping we were still dropping points left right and centre. Even the top four was looking alarmingly far off and those above us were really starting to click into gear. 6 wins from 6 later and with the top four dropping points we are right back in the frame. Which is more, in those six games we not only seem to have found our best team but have played some encouraging football and shown some classic United grit. The most important thing is that It’s progress from the majority of the performances we put in when chasing the Champions League spots in the previous two seasons. We also look to have clearer purpose and direction under Mourinho and now possess genuine top quality match winners in the form of Ibra, Pogba and so on . It’s enough to suggest we should aim for a consolidated top four position rather than fighting until the very end of the season and given the ground we’ve had to make up this should remain our realistic target. The only worry is that the battle for those places looks more competitive than ever.
It's been a happy month for Jose Mourinho but he'll be under no illusions at the task ahead
Liverpool (H) - Crucial It may only be mid-January but the Liverpool game could be crucial in determining which of the above seems most likely. Win it and we can re-enter the title picture (albeit on the fringes), lose and we’ll be 8 points adrift of them whilst possibly slipping further behind Tottenham and Arsenal who face West Brom and Swansea. A draw wouldn’t be too bad but given that it’s at Old Trafford and Liverpool are facing a couple of key absentees we should sniff a massive opportunity for a vital 3 points.
January represents a hugely important month for us on the domestic front. We’ll need recent form to continue as we hunt down the top four as well as ensuring progression in the FA Cup and booking a place at Wembley for the League Cup final. Barring the game against Liverpool most fixtures look winnable and whilst it rarely transpires that way we should see January as an opportunity to kick on. Making predictions is always a risky business and unforeseeable changes in form, fitness and signings over the next month make it even more difficult. Still, I’ve previewed each of our January fixtures and quite optimistically concluded that we’ll come out of it unbeaten.
Middlesbrough (H) 31.01.2017 Given the current form of both sides and the home advantage, this looks like a routine 3 points. Anything less will obviously be a huge disappointment but United cannot take a Boro side that’ve drawn at both the Etihad and the Emirates lightly. Moreover, Aitor Karanka is a former coach of Mourinho’s and is better placed then anyone in the Premier League to know his methods. Despite this, his squad will have to be somewhere near their absolute best to not only deny our red hot attackers but to cause us trouble at the other end. PREDICTION: Comfortable win
West Ham (A) 02.01.2017 The departure from Upton Park and West Ham’s struggles to adapt makes this a much less daunting fixture than in previous years. I was in the away end when we suffered a 3-2 defeat there last April and there’s no doubt the atmosphere played a massive part in both inspiring West Ham's comeback and unsettling our players. Though 10 points from a possible 12 in their last four matches makes this a difficult time to be facing the Hammers and with this game coming just 2 days after Boro our settled starting XI may well be shuffled or else fatigued. Fortunately we’ve got the squad to cope whereas West Ham’s is a little more stretched, though Andy Carroll’s return could lead to some set-piece based nail biting. A draw wouldn’t be a disaster but it’s another good opportunity to gain a win in a period when those above us are playing each other. PREDICTION: Narrow win
Reading (H) FA Cup 07.01.2017 The return of Jaap Stam will be a mild talking point in the build up to this. Reading, currently 3rd, are going well in the Championship and as with any underdog in the FA Cup shouldn’t be underestimated. Whether they go for it or sit back in the hope of a replay remains to be seen but this should be a good chance for Mourinho to give some Premier League non-starters are game and gain comfortable passage to the next round. It’d be nice to see Rashford up top and perhaps even Bastian at the heart of midfield. PREDICTION: Comfortable win
Hull (A) League Cup semi-final 10.01.2017
Our first and possibly most realistic chance of silverware this season, we must be utterly ruthless over the two legs against a Hull side that are in a poor way at the moment. The main concern is that with Premier League prospects looking bleak they will be pinning all their hopes and efforts on getting to Wembley. The test will obviously come in the second leg but we should be confident of doing enough damage at Old Trafford to ensure we win the tie. PREDICTION: Comfortable Win
Liverpool (H) 15.01.2017 Likely to be massive for both. If we pick up the two wins prior to this and those above us drop points then we’ll be right at the door of the top four. As much as it pains me to say, Liverpool are well in the title mix and will be desperate to prove their worth as contenders with a win over us. Mane will be a big loss for Klopp but they are likely to have Coutinho back and so if we are to keep them at bay the form of Jones and Rojo needs to continue given that Eric Bailey will also be at AFCON. Whilst both have been brilliant recently you get the feeling a mistake or rash decision isn’t far away for either and this will be a test unlike anything they’ve faced as a pair. Yet Liverpool remain unconvincing at the back and if the likes of Ibra and Mhikitaryan are still firing then I expect us to find a way through. We’ll no doubt be much more adventurous than at Anfield where both teams produced a stifling display but I don’t expect us to dominate the ball like when Arsenal and Tottenham visited Old Trafford. It could be frantic, it will definitely be crucial.PREDICTION: Draw
Stoke City (A) 21.01.2017 Stoke are an unpredictable proposition, something probably well summed up by their recent performance at Anfield. For the opening 20 minutes they looked dangerous and could well of gained a two goal lead, yet the capitulation that followed showed just how prone they are to shipping goals against quality opposition. They’ve now conceded four against City, Spurs and Liverpool as well as three to Arsenal. Only Lee Grant and our inability to finish meant we didn’t inflict similar damage back in October. That being said, our last three visits to the Bet365 Stadium have all fallen around this time of year and resulted in two losses and a draw. The old cliché about being able to do it on a windy day in Stoke comes to mind. We’ve seen progress under Mourinho since the Moyes and Van Gaal regimes and let’s hope that’s reflected in terms of gaining points in this fixture. PREDICTION: Draw
Hull City (A) 26.01.2017 If things don’t go to plan in the first leg then this could prove a tricky game but Hull upcoming fixtures suggest they may well have suffered even more misery by the time this comes around. If made, then January signings could give them a boost but as I said earlier you would think the prospect of a first trophy would fire us up enough to get win at Old Trafford and either draw or victory at the Kcom. PREDICTION: Win