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Unwinning Invincibles: Mourinho’s Manchester United hard to beat but short on victories

Manchester United's six month, 25-match unbeaten run in the Premier League lasted 197 days, 25 games, two-thirds of a season and when it ended Mourinho’s team were 16 points off the division’s summit.
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney looks dejected after Arsenal score their second goal in a 2-0 win at Emirates Stadium on Sunday, May 7, 2017. John Sibley / Reuters
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney looks dejected after Arsenal score their second goal in a 2-0 win at Emirates Stadium on Sunday, May 7, 2017. John Sibley / Reuters

Nothing lasts forever. Not Jose Mourinho’s undefeated league record against Arsene Wenger, which spanned almost 13 years. Certainly not his supposed truce with the Frenchman, which was broken in a matter of days as the Portuguese departed the Emirates Stadium to the sound of sniping: at Wenger, at Arsenal.

And not United’s unbeaten run in the Premier League. It lasted 197 days, 25 games, two-thirds of a season and when it ended Mourinho’s team were 16 points off the division’s summit. There was a certain symmetry to it all. The genuine 21st-century Invincibles, the Arsenal team who completed the 2003/04 season without losing a league match, eventually stumbled to defeat against United. Mourinho’s modern-day counterparts, the side who were on the longest unbeaten run in any of Europe’s top five leagues, were duly defeated by Arsenal.

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The sequence-ending setback can be attributed to exhaustion, to Europa League exertions, to injuries and to fielding a weakened team. The more significant question if it is merely a statistical anomaly or a precursor to a genuine revival in United’s fortunes.

Mourinho’s United were the inimitable Invincibles, the unwinning Invincibles, the dysfunctional Invincibles. They contrived to drop 24 points in those 25 games, drawing 12 and winning only 13. The Portuguese himself accepted they would have been better off losing some but winning more.

But going large chunks of a campaign without losing is a trait of Mourinho teams. His Chelsea went 40 matches undefeated, a run that was eventually ended by United, until November 2006. His title-winning side of 2014/15 went first 14 and then 16 league games unbeaten. The difference, of course, is that those quintessential Mourinho sides won far more than they drew.

United produced echoes of Mourinho’s past in displaying the resolve required to navigate six months without losing. They showed a bloody-minded pragmatism in their determination to avoid defeat at the Etihad Stadium. Late equalisers, against Liverpool and Stoke City and Everton, suggested they had the spirit Mourinho wants to generate.

But late concessions, to Arsenal in November and Swansea City in April, were scarcely familiar. The spate of home draws revealed an uncharacteristic lack of ruthlessness. They have been an atypical Mourinho team.

If unbeaten runs usually show strength, United’s revealed their flaws as well: the curiously bad home record as they will set a record for the fewest wins at Old Trafford in a Premier League campaign, the sense transition has been a permanent state of affairs in the past four years, the comparative shortage of goals, the ongoing quest to find a first-choice team that becomes as set in stone as Mourinho’s Chelsea sides.

Instead, and while it has scarcely suited Mourinho’s argument as he repeated his hard-luck story about United’s absentees, that ability to avoid defeat owed much to a strength in depth. Supposedly depleted teams that won at Middlesbrough and Burnley were actually acquired at huge cost and featured players of vast pedigree. Even the one genuine rookie parachuted in to face Arsenal, 19-year-old defender Axel Tuanzebe, acquitted himself well against Alexis Sanchez.

United’s previous resilience owed something to quantity. More regular demonstrations of quality would help, and Mourinho has been quick to present a case for further heavy investment. But then as some of United’s draws demonstrate, it is easier to set up a side to not lose than to win: Mourinho has been the frustrated favourite and the superstar manager who has adopted the role of the underdog alike. He went to Arsenal with Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan operating as supplementary full-backs in the bid for another stalemate.

The result rendered it a bad choice, and, more than most, Mourinho normally wants to be judged on results. Historically, though, both United and Mourinho have dealt in wins, not in simply avoiding defeats. If their interminable unbeaten run lends momentum and a refusal to be bowed, it will have served a purpose. But it needs to be a catalyst for better times, not merely a numerical oddity.

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Updated: May 8, 2017 04:00 AM

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