How many home draws are too many? Eight, if Jose Mourinho’s reaction to Saturday’s 0-0 stalemate against West Bromwich Albion is anything to go by.
It felt like the day the Manchester United manager’s patience finally snapped. The Red Devils may be on a 19-game unbeaten run but they’ve only won eight and drawn the other 11, eight of which have come at Old Trafford. The frustration – with not being able to put teams away, with not being able to get into the top four – is beginning to tell.
“It’s disappointing because it’s one more draw,” he said. “It’s an amazing unbeaten run - 19 matches in the modern Premier League is fantastic.
“But it is too many draws at home. Because some draws away from home are acceptable, positive, you can deal with it. But too many draws at home.”
The reliable players in the back were the guys “pulling the train” against West Brom - Mourinho said - while the front four went missing. There was no mistaking that Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford were the culprits for this bad result in his eyes.
“Today for 90 minutes Valencia was consistent, Ashley Young was consistent, Marcos Rojo was consistent, Bailly was consistent, Fellaini was consistent, Carrick was consistent, and the other ones were not consistent,” he said.
“The other ones were a flash of talent, a glimpse of talent, one good action, almost a goal. And we need to kill opponents. This is déjà vu all season.”
If it had been the case that United were peppering West Brom’s goal with shots, he might have had a point about the culpability of the attackers he was forced to choose from for this game due to a combination of injuries and suspensions.
But they only had three shots on target against West Brom. The problem was less in the taking of the chances – for which Mourinho can blame his attackers at a stroke – and more in the creation of them.
It’s extraordinary that a manager in Mourinho’s position would elect to blame Mkhitaryan (16 Premier League appearances), Lingard (41), Martial (48) and Rashford (34). There is often a message behind Mourinho’s contacts with the media but it’s difficult to ascertain what he was trying to achieve by singling out four so relatively inexperienced at this level.
“When you score a goal against these teams you don’t win 1-0,” he said. “You win three or 4-0 because the game is open and they have to play a different way.”
What Mourinho sought to mask with the blame game is this: when that first goal doesn’t come easily, the manager has no solutions. With no out-and-out striker on the bench, Mourinho turned to Marouane Fellaini to supplement Rashford in the second half. By doing so he played right into the hands of Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans. West Brom’s centre-backs made 26 clearances between them on the day.
Mourinho was criticised throughout his time at Real Madrid for failing to implement a coherent attacking strategy. Whatever the likes of Mesut Ozil, Karim Benzema or Cristiano Ronaldo could muster in front of goal was largely their own work. It was the only part of the game plan that allowed for improvisation and only because Mourinho was so utterly dependent on skills he couldn’t impart.
He has never been a coach to improve attackers or help them develop innovation in front of goal. He’s the type of coach who can drill a defence but when it comes to forwards he’s helpless.
Ronaldo could conjure a goal from anywhere and Ozil could find a through ball for Benzema in the absence of a well-rounded attacking plan. There is a big difference between what he had at the Bernabeu and what he had on Saturday.
West Brom manager Tony Pulis said that they had watched three videos in preparation for coming to Old Trafford. It’s safe to say United’s draws against Stoke City, West Ham, Burnley and Hull were on the shortlist for pre-game viewing.
Those matches followed – largely - the same template. If an away team defends deep and with discipline – keeping United in front of them – then they have a better than 50-50 shot of earning a point; 15 home matches for United this season, only six wins.
United go side to side before launching a deep cross into the box far too often. They lacked Mata and Paul Pogba here and - without those two - United appear incapable of quick interplay at the edge of the opposition area. With intuitive players, that is often the best way to create goal scoring chances.
“You didn’t come up with a way to win me the game,” is an accusation that you can imagine both Jose Mourinho and his Manchester United players hurling at each other after a game like this.
But there would be only one winner in that showdown. It feels like there are going to be consequences. This was the first game Mkhitaryan had to run as United’s expert playmaker. Admittedly, he failed.
Lingard flitted in and out without being decisive. Martial missed the only good chance that came his way and appears – still – to be the kind of player to decorate games instead of win them.
Rashford will come good but it’s doubtful that Mourinho has the patience to help him reach his potential.
“In teams that want to win things you need consistency in the individuals,” Mourinho said. “We are not consistent. We miss easy chances, we have moments or periods where we push really but then a couple of players they disappear and they have 10 minutes where we don’t see them.”
Mourinho’s right when he says there is too much inconsistency in those players for clubs “at this level”. But that’s the reality of United’s position. He can hardly blame Martial for not being Ronaldo; Rashford for not being Benzema.
Very soon he’ll have Zlatan back – a man who can win him matches without any strategic attacking blueprint - and that’s what he prefers. Shifting the blame onto players who can’t is – and always has been - a deflection mechanism.
It is reasonable to expect a manager such as Mourinho to have thought of a solution to a problem that more than half of their opponents at Old Trafford have brought with them this season. But failing to beat West Brom at home is probably a pretty good indication of where United actually are.