There was a time when Manchester United drawing with a relegation-threatened team at Old Trafford would have come as a major shock, but Sunday’s stalemate against Swansea City was not really that unexpected. Just three days after holding Manchester City to a creditable tie at the Etihad Stadium, Jose Mourinho’s men once again failed to see off inferior opposition in front of their own supporters, and remain outsiders for a top-four finish as a result.
United’s 25-match unbeaten run in the Premier League stretches way back to 23 October, when they were thrashed 4-0 by champions-elect Chelsea. In many ways it is an impressive record which demonstrates resilience and character, but some of the gloss is undoubtedly taken off by the fact that 12 of those games – almost half – have ended all square. Going so long without defeat is certainly eye-catching, but in terms of points it would be far preferable to have lost five matches and won 20.
The most disappointing aspect of the multitude of draws – no other side in the division have been held as often as United (14) – is the fixtures they have tended to come in; indeed, while there is little shame in sharing the spoils against Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and Everton, Mourinho’s side have also taken a single point from meetings with Stoke City (twice), Burnley, West Ham United, Hull City, Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea, with seven of the above eight having occurred at Old Trafford. Had United won just three of those games, their place in the top four would be virtually guaranteed ahead of this weekend’s trip to the Emirates.
It should be pointed out at this stage that there is no single reason that accurately explains each of the above draws. Against Burnley in October, for instance, the Red Devils registered 13 shots on target compared to the Clarets’ one, yet were denied by a combination of profligate finishing and a superb showing from visiting goalkeeper Tom Heaton. It was a similar story against both West Ham and Bournemouth, when United fashioned a number of excellent scoring opportunities but failed to put enough away.
On other occasions, though, creation has been as big a problem as conversion. United were found wanting in terms of ideas against a West Brom outfit who defended deep and packed men behind the ball last month, while they were not significantly better than Swansea at either end of the pitch on Sunday. In such matches it is difficult for United to look anywhere but the mirror when it comes to apportioning blame.
There are, of course, some mitigating circumstances that should be taken into account. Mourinho is right when he says fatigue and injury problems – United have nine players on the sidelines at the time of writing, including the suspended Marouane Fellaini – have had an adverse effect on performances. It is also true that things would be looking a great deal brighter had United been a touch more clinical inside the penalty area in just a handful of encounters.
At the same time, though, the suspicion remains that Mourinho’s strengths lie in the defensive side of the game – as evidenced by the tremendous recent neutralisation of Chelsea – and that he is not as skilled at establishing a defined attacking process or system that is capable of moving the task of breaking down opponents beyond the instinct and ingenuity of individual forwards. In this light, the fact that Southampton are the only Premier League side to average more crosses per game than United feels rather telling.
“I feel a point is not good but my players gave everything,” Mourinho said after the Swansea stalemate. “We are a squad of 22 that at this moment it is a squad of 12 or 13. We will keep going until the end with this attitude. We fight. We do not lose many, that is the reality, but we will see what happens at the end of the season. [I have] zero criticism for my boys.”
United’s progression to the semi-finals of the Europa League means they still have an excellent chance of qualifying for the Champions League, either through the continent’s junior competition or their final position in the Premier League. If they do fail to make it, though, it will be matches like Sunday’s that they look back on as the ones which cost them a place at Europe’s top table next term.