United failing to compete with the elite

NOVEMBER 7 — You could see it coming.

When Chelsea took the lead against Manchester United early in the second half at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, it was no great surprise.

From the start of the game, and especially since the start of the second half, Chelsea had been the only team trying to win.

Jose Mourinho would disagree with this claim, of course, but it looked very much as though his team’s main ambition from the encounter was to avoid defeat. Winning would have been a welcome bonus, of course, but it was not — or did not appear to be — their primary intention.

And when Alvaro Morata pounced with a lovely header to give Chelsea the lead, the question was what would United do next, now that their primary target of avoiding defeat had been rendered impossible?

After all, there was still plenty of time remaining, 35 minutes, so more than enough opportunity for United to show what they could do in attack once the demand had arisen.

The answer, however, was that United had nothing to give. No creativity, no ideas, no purpose or sense of urgency. Nothing.

Not until the final few minutes, when Chelsea nervously started to sit deep, did Mourinho's side start to look even remotely threatening, and that was only when they adopted the crude tactic of lumping long balls in the general direction of Marouane Fellaini and hoping for a lucky bounce.

But Chelsea withstood that brief battering to claim three points which were amply deserved over the balance of the 90 minutes, relieving some of the pressure on Blues boss Antonio Conte and leaving United eight points behind rampaging EPL leaders Manchester City.

For United, the biggest concern is that it was yet another example of the problems they habitually encounter whenever they play against fellow top six teams, especially away from home.

Since Mourinho took over at the start of last season, their league record against the top six reads as follows: played 13, won 3, drawn 5, lost 5, goals scored 8, goals conceded 13.

That’s not a disgraceful record, yielding 14 points from 13 games. But it’s certainly not impressive either, and the most worrying aspect is the goals scored column: just eight in 13 games is a meagre tally, and reveals an awful lot about United’s collective mindset when they approach these games.

Away from home their lack of firepower is even more alarming, with Mourinho’s team only scoring one goal — by Wayne Rooney against Tottenham in last season’s 2-1 defeat — in their seven games against the top six since the start of last season.

For the record, those seven results were: 0-0 at Liverpool; 0-4 at Chelsea; 0-0 at Manchester City; 0-2 at Arsenal; 1-2 at Tottenham; 0-0 at Liverpool and finally Sunday’s 0-1 at Chelsea. Seven games, three points through goalless draws, no victories, four defeats and only one goal scored.

In the face of those facts, the conclusion that Mourinho sends out his team with the intention of gaining goalless draws whenever they face elite opposition away from home seems absolutely inescapable.

You could counter this by saying that the fault lies with the players in not being good enough rather than their manager’s tactical plans, but that doesn’t really seem like a tenable theory when you consider how many goals United regularly plunder against lower level opposition, when they are given a bit more attacking freedom by their manager.

It really just seems that Mourinho doesn’t trust his players to go out and win games against high-quality opposition, instead focussing his efforts on attempting to claim a point through a goalless draw.

There’s a certain merit in that — defending is a part of football just as much as attacking, and Mourinho has every right to set out his team however he likes.

But the way they are taking on the top opponents at the moment lacks balance and doesn’t allow his team to play to their strengths, as evidenced by the desperate struggles endured at Stamford Bridge this weekend by Romelu Lukaku, who was completely ineffective after being left isolated in attack.

Lukaku received no support or service, finishing the game with just 24 touches of the ball (the same as Fellaini in half an hour after he appeared from the bench), and his lack of overall involvement was sharply contrasted at the other end by the excellent all-round performance of Morata, his fellow big-money recruit in this summer’s transfer market.

There is still a long way to go this season and eight points is by no means an unsurmountable gap, but you can’t nil-nil your way to the title and right now it seems clear that until Mourinho changes his team’s approach against fellow contenders, United have little realistic chance of finishing first.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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