Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United ‘big game’ record makes for pretty torturous reading. Goals have been almost non-existent, and the matches have bordered on unwatchable. Even looking at the results provokes undesirable flashbacks of hours wasted.
In seven away matches against the ‘top six’ under Mourinho, Manchester United have no wins, one goal, and three draws but it has always been a case of substance over style for Mourinho and that is fine when trophies are common, as has been the case for much of his career.
Few will be too fussed with 1-0s if you are winning the league, or battling for a place in the latter rounds of the Champions League. What an ultra-pragmatic approach does do, though, is shorten the leash when the outcomes are less than perfect.
Without the plethora of silverware that is expected each season from Mourinho, fans, pundits and all who watch his teams become critical. Add the highly-publicised spending to that, and the frustration is not only understandable, but, perhaps, justified.
The names on his squad sheet, and the financial backing he has had, make grinding his way to secondary trophies insufficient. This Manchester United era was/is meant to be about returning to the very top of football domestically and in Europe.
This season is the year it was meant to come together, the year that it is almost title or bust - and with the Reds falling further behind City in the race for supremacy, 888sport are going 14/1 on a dramatic United triumph.
While this season could still be an overwhelming success, the early signs are hardly positive. Negativity has reigned supreme in the big matches for Mourinho, despite the fact that Manchester City are storming away at the top of the table. The lead is already eight points.
Mourinho, in a way almost unimaginable for the man who took stunned Europe a little over a decade ago, took time to mention that United are second on Sunday.
He tampered expectations in his first year back at Chelsea, too. Ambition management is a step of further pragmatism and, while it might be realistic, is an immediately defensive move. Second might be enough for his superiors at the club. It is less likely to scrape approval if City march to a clear title win.
Where City are playing every match like a team aiming for a 5-0, Manchester United are approaching many with a ‘must not lose’ setup. On several occasions they have played like a team shackled in attack, and a team without a plan in possession.
It worked against Liverpool and Tottenham, but, in defeat to Chelsea this weekend, United were outplayed. That defeat saw them pulled back from primary City challengers into the chasing pack. Pep Guardiola's men are now as short as 1/6 in our Premier League betting markets for the title.
Of course, the injury to Paul Pogba has made a massive difference. The downturn in form of Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been at least as hurtful, but the Armenian’s place in the side remains unthreatened. Romelu Lukaku has hit a scoring drought, and Anthony Martial is seemingly yet to win full trust of Mourinho.
Injuries and fluctuation in form will happen. Lukaku’s poor run is more effect than cause, and the reluctance to name Martial and Marcus Rashford in the same team is continually puzzling. The failure to sign Ivan Perisic has been pointed at as a costly mistake, but offensive talent is there for this team to entertain.
There is about as much chance of Guardiola signing Grant Holt as Mourinho drastically changing his tactics. Fair enough given his success, you might say. It is hard not to wonder, however, what this Manchester United team could produce if Mourinho accepted even a little more risk.
Alterations are not needed for the sake of entertainment, but for Mourinho’s once-favourite hobby: winning. The results – particularly away from home to their rivals – could hardly be worse, for instance.
Committing more forward and changing their approach might lead to defeats, but the heightened chance of victory is surely worth the gamble given their recent results. It might just help to becalm the frustrations of the fans, too. And, more importantly, keep the board onside.
Thrilling football does not equal trophies, but the current tedium will make a non-title-winning season even harder to take. Mourinho was not hired to reinvent the sport or score 140 goals in a season, yet his team have begun to eliminate their own title chances.
The current squad is capable of far greater than we have seen in Mourinho’s first year and a half in charge. Eight points in November is not quite unassailable, but it will require a City collapse, and a winning run for United that is increasingly improbable.
A disappointing first season was saved by a Europa League victory, and his second season could quickly be looking to Europe for stress-relief again. Without it, though, we are left to wonder if this uninspiring football and a top four finish would be acceptable for the club’s hierarchy.
Alex Ferguson’s sides were not always based on pure entertainment, but victory was the primary aim. There is an increasing sense that Mourinho would rather not lose than push to win.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*