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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Jose Mourinho's ineffective away pragmatism set for fresh examination with trip to Arsenal

Manchester United's record away from home against big-six opposition has created just one goal under the Portuguese.

Jose Mourinho has an impressive record against Arsene Wenger but his recent record away from home has been poor. Jason Cairnduff / Reuters
Jose Mourinho has an impressive record against Arsene Wenger but his recent record away from home has been poor. Jason Cairnduff / Reuters

It was rather topical that Wayne Rooney returned to the goals this week.

Rooney’s name is likely to be mentioned at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday and not just because Arsenal have tended to be favourite opposition for Manchester United’s record goalscorer.

The former England captain scored United’s only goal in eight away games at big-six opposition under Jose Mourinho. Include the end of his second spell at Chelsea and his sides have one goal in 990 minutes on such stages.

So while Mourinho has an outstanding record against Arsene Wenger, losing just twice in 17 meetings and even then, in a Community Shield and a league game when he fielded a weakened team, the United manager finds himself with a point to prove.

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He objects to suggestions he is defensive – the latest came from Eric Cantona, a man indelibly associated with United flair – and could scarcely have fielded a more attacking side against Brighton and Hove Albion last week. Tuesday’s 4-2 win over Watford was the eighth time already this season that United have racked up four goals.

And yet, that record against the best, that statistical evidence of either negativity or impotence, is unavoidable. To some, Mourinho may be defined by the bus-parking exercise that brought stalemates at Anfield in successive seasons.

The Portuguese is often deemed the arch-pragmatist but, some have started to wonder, is there anything pragmatic about a policy that does not seem to be working?

His last seven away league games against elite opponents have yielded just three points. In a season when at least 90 may be required to win the title, victories seem not just desirable, but necessary.

Mourinho may interpret the seemingly damning numbers differently to his critics. He went to both Anfield and Stamford Bridge this season short of fully-fit central midfielders, in particular the pivotal Paul Pogba, and might have picked different sides with different tactics had the Frenchman been available.

He went to the Emirates Stadium and White Hart Lane last season with below-strength sides after choosing to use his premier players in United’s successful Europa League campaigns.

The rookie Axel Tuanzebe started both of those defeats. Potential scorers like Pogba, Marcus Rashford and the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic did not begin either. Indeed, the Swede has only featured in two of those eight games.

Maybe, too, United would have scored at Stamford Bridge in last season’s FA Cup had they played the entire game with 11 men; instead Ander Herrera was sent off after only 35 minutes.

That said, they had come to contain. Mourinho may argue that his side were more progressive and the game was more open when he visited Chelsea last month, although United nevertheless lost 1-0.

Assess those eight games and United have recorded only 17 shots on target, an average of just over two per match. Equally, 17 shots on target will usually produce more than one goal.

Mourinho may count himself unlucky. Not that a calculating figure ever used to resort to cliches about the luck evening itself out.

He has long liked being defined by the numbers, but they cast him in a poor light. So, too, his £75 million (Dh371m) forward. Romelu Lukaku has only scored five goals in his last 38 games against the big six. Even the departed Rooney’s goal was largely irrelevant: it came in a 2-1 defeat.

There was a time when Mourinho was defined by the tactical masterclasses that produced the sort of away wins that were devised by a strategist supreme. But to win, you first have to score. And Saturday is a test if United can recapture the knack of finding the net on their major rivals’ home turf.