Michael Carrick pronounced himself “completely disappointed” with Manchester United’s 1-1 draw against Anderlecht, neatly summing up what many supporters have been feeling for several seasons. The midfielder’s point was that the game and perhaps even the result over two legs were there for the taking, yet United could not rouse themselves to do what big teams do and make a statement of intent against accommodating opponents. “It was almost too easy at times,” Carrick said. “We weren’t ruthless enough and now we are left with one of those scorelines where it is dangerous.”
Perhaps there is no need for United to beat themselves up too much. They have an away goal and every chance of reaching the Europa League semi-finals when Anderlecht turn up at Old Trafford on Thursday, and there was even some evidence in Belgium that Marcus Rashford’s form and confidence might be returning.
On the other hand, the visit of Chelsea on Sunday afternoon is bound to put another low-wattage United season into perspective. It is not just the gap of 18 points between José Mourinho’s team and Antonio Conte’s runaway leaders, or the fact that United’s 21-game unbeaten run in the league since their 4-0 thumping at Stamford Bridge in October has failed to make any impression on the top four due to the number of draws.
The uncomfortable truth is that Conte has achieved in London what Mourinho was expected to accomplish in Manchester. He has taken the players who performed so sluggishly for Mourinho last season and, with a few additions and tweaks to the system, made them look unstoppable.
Chelsea already look capable of being a force in the Champions League next season, whereas United are unsure if they will qualify and, as Carrick so frankly admitted, are a way off the required standard anyway. Mourinho can and does plead for time but Conte is in his first season at a new club too and United supporters are becoming a little tired of successive managers saying the same thing.
The present United side might be slightly ahead of the Louis van Gaal version for consistency and entertainment value, though that is no great achievement with the bar set so low. The league table spells out all too clearly that United are no closer to getting ahead of the Premier League teams that matter, and statistics are available to show why. After 30 games, United have exactly the same number of wins (15) that David Moyes was able to boast at the same stage, and two fewer than Van Gaal in his first season. In terms of points, Mourinho is two short of his immediate predecessor’s total while the goal tally of 46 is inferior to that recorded under both Moyes and Van Gaal.
Mourinho has been telling everyone for the past few weeks that that is because everyone but Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been wasteful with chances. Yet while it is true that United’s league return would look even sorrier without the Swede’s 17-goal contribution, the fact is that low-scoring seasons are becoming the norm at Old Trafford. In Van Gaal’s last season United finished on 49 goals, easily the lowest total in the top eight and 10 fewer even than Chelsea, who were considered to have had a poor campaign. The previous season saw a healthier return of 62 as United claimed fourth place with the fourth highest number of goals, while in isolation Moyes’s closing tally of 64 looks good until it is recalled that Manchester City and Liverpool both reached three figures as they tussled for the title.
It is some time since United were regularly hitting the mid-eighties for goals in a league season and Mourinho’s assertion that Javier Hernández might have chipped in with 20 goals by now could be considered wishful thinking given that he reached that figure only once in his time in Manchester.
Naturally United would be better off with a few more goals – which team wouldn’t? – though the drab performances against West Brom, Everton and Anderlecht pointed up the most disappointing aspect of the team’s development. To wit, there has not really been any. If United were in transition under Moyes and Van Gaal, they remain so under Mourinho.
Compared with the way Chelsea and Spurs have pushed on this season, there has been little to stir the imagination or set the pulse racing, something underlined when the PFA player of the year shortlist was released. Chelsea had two players among the six nominations and solid performers such as David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Victor Moses might have felt a little unlucky to be overlooked. Mauricio Pochettino argued, with some justification, that Dele Alli was just as good a shout as Harry Kane and the Spurs back line could also have supplied some deserving candidates.
No one would quibble with Ibrahimovic’s inclusion on the list; he has been phenomenal this season and at 35 is carrying the team, a point he has not been too shy to make. But beyond an outstanding striker, United’s quality falls off sharply. Who else has made anything like an award-winning contribution this season? Not Paul Pogba, for all the expense. Not Rashford or Anthony Martial, for all their promise last season. Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia have been consistent, and Carrick dependable when called upon, but that’s about it.
Wayne Rooney has lost his place in the side, Carrick is the same age as Ibrahimovic, and the manager has started to criticise some of his players in public. While this could be the stage in the season when United are finally forced to decide between going all out for a top-four place and concentrating on the Europa League, the holy grail of Champions League qualification may raise more questions than it answers.
Of Sunday’s two teams only Chelsea look a side ready for a challenge beyond what the Premier League can offer, though in reality their greatest challenge next season might be hanging on to their best players, perhaps even their manager. That’s life at the top, nothing stands still, which is exactly why United followers cannot be happy with ponderous stasis.