“Jose’s playing the way United should,” sing the fans at Old Trafford. In a season which has seen them rack up their greatest number of home draws in 36 years it seems a strange sentiment for Manchester United supporters to throw their weight behind.
It does hold some weight, given the clear desire for Jose Mourinho's men to open up their opponents with attacking football, but the truth of the matter is that they just haven’t been good enough at doing that. Against West Brom on Saturday they again proved unable to crack open a stubborn defensive setup, with their predictable forward play failing to ask enough questions of Tony Pulis’ side.
The 0-0 draw was their eighth share of the spoils at Old Trafford this season, and spoke of a far deeper issue than the loss of a few players to injury and suspension. No, this has been Mourinho’s United all over. They have the right intent, but they are not successfully playing ‘the way they should’, whatever their intentions.
United have now fired 481 shots at opposition goals this term, yet they have scored just 42 times. Even accounting for blocked shots, their 12 per cent conversion rates put them in the bottom four of the Premier League’s rankings.
Moreover, Opta’s 'expected goals' function shows that United are very much under-performing in the final third. When Mourinho complained Saturday about his inconsistent strike force, he was only half right.
Their 20 goals in 15 home games this term already looks miniscule, but considering that they have often bossed possession and got into enough dangerous positions to rain in the third-highest number of shots in the league, the expected return lies at 25.1 goals over the course of the season so far. This is based on the quality of attacking play and the areas in which attackers are being teed up for shots at goal.
Those extra five goals would potentially have made a big difference to their league standing, but even a tally of 25 would only rank eighth in the Premier League and pales into insignificance alongside the 39 scored by Liverpool in their 15 games at Anfield this term. So when Mourinho chastises his attackers, he must also bear in mind that United are not creating nearly enough quality chances.
There is clearly a particular issue in the final third at Old Trafford, since United’s 22 goals in 13 away fixtures tally favourably against an expected goals rate of 20.2. Away from home, Mourinho’s side are snapping up openings more readily based on chances created and positions taken up. But again, that shows up the lack of creativity.
Much of United’s success over the last few decades came about through an ability to keep asking new questions of opposition defences until eventually they collapsed under the weight. But that is just not the case anymore.
While there is clearly a new edge to their game compared to this time last year under Louis van Gaal, it is not nearly enough to be considered ‘the way they should be playing’. Until they get back to battering down the door instead of simply tapping at it a lot, United will remain a poor imitation of their former selves.