It’s safe to say that Jose Mourinho has had a mixed first season in charge of Manchester United.
The Portuguese boss has already lifted the EFL Cup, and stands on the brink of the Europa League final, but despite a 25-match unbeaten run in the Premier League, the Red Devils sit in fifth.
Often the master of mind games and deflection, Mourinho has gone through the full repertoire this season, with referees, the media and a lack of time to rebuild a failing squad all used as excuses for United’s underperformance this term.
However, one that he has returned to time after time is the crowded fixture list that he’s had to contend with, coming to a head with nine games in April.
But does Mourinho have a point, or is this just another one of his infamous distractions?
While United have played a lot of games this season, their situation has hardly been unique for an English club, with their potential 64 matches this term (should they get through to the Europa League final) putting them in joint 8th position in the all-time list.
It isn’t even the heaviest season in United history – with the 2008/09 squad playing 66 times. The extra matches didn’t seem to affect Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, who won the Club World Cup and League Cup, as well as winning the Premier League with 90 points – 35 more than Mourinho has managed so far this term.
The Red Devils make up five of the top 14 most congested seasons – this year is the only occasion of those that they haven’t won the Premier League.
Spare a thought for Arsenal, who had to endure a marathon 70 game season in 1979/80. The Gunners lost the Cup Winners Cup final on penalties to Valencia three days after losing the FA Cup final to West Ham, as their exhausted squad finished fourth in the First Division. Poor Brian Talbot started each of the 70 matches in the engine room of midfield, but still came away empty handed from the gruelling campaign.
As the most successful side of the Premier League era, it’s no surprise that United have had to cope with an expanded fixture list as they go deep into a number of competitions each season.
Since 1992, the Red Devils have averaged 57.1 matches per season – which includes a relaxed 44 matches during Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge.
Lengthy campaigns have long been the way of it for United sides, going back to the 63 games in 1993/94, which saw Ferguson’s men pick up the double.
While United have dipped since the Scot’s departure, it would be wrong to just blame fixture congestion for their poor league performance this season, with plenty of other underlying factors contributing.
Mourinho would point to the amount of changes he’s had to make to his starting XI this season, and looking at the rankings, he may have a point.
United are second in the table for most changes made this Premier League season, behind just Manchester City. The 3.03 alterations made is almost three times as many as champions-elect Chelsea, who sit bottom of the pile.
The Blues haven’t had to deal with any European involvement this term, and boss Antonio Conte must have been grateful for the extra rest for the players, as well as the extra time spent on the training field. Likewise, so must Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, who sit 18th for starting XI switches.
However, having spent big in recent seasons, United should have a squad big enough to fight on a number of fronts. They were able to let Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin leave in January – and the number of changes to their team shows they’ve been able to give players a rest throughout the season. A far cry from the exhausted Brian Talbot.
When looking at why United look set to miss out on the top four, it’s undeniable that their home form has cost them dear.
While they have lost just once in 18 league games at Old Trafford this season, the 10 draws – mostly to lowly ranked sides – puts them just ninth in the home table.
Winning just seven games, United have scored only 24 goals in those 18 matches (the 14th highest in the division) at a lowly win rate of 38.9%.
This is a far cry from the Mourinho of old, where the home ground was a fortress. He won all 17 matches as Porto manager in 2003/04, and also had eye catching figures as Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid boss.
He went an astonishing 150 matches without tasting defeat on home soil between February 2002 and April 2011 – and there weren’t many draws on the way either.
From the start of the 2002/03 season to the end of the 2014/15 campaign at Chelsea, Mourinho won 187 out of 227 home matches (82%), drawing 36 (16%) and losing only four (2%).
However, things started to go wrong very quickly at Stamford Bridge after lifting the title in 2015.
After falling out with players and staff, Mourinho won just three of the eight home games before being sacked with the Blues on the brink of relegation, and his form hasn’t improved since returning to management at Old Trafford.
Since the start of the 2015 season, Mourinho has won only 10 of his 26 home matches (39%), losing five (19%), with a whopping 11 (42%) being draws.
With a top four place slipping out of Jose’s reach, it’s easy to see why, with a less than stellar home record.
Quite simply, United haven’t been scoring enough goals – especially in front of their own fans.
While rampant Mourinho sides of old would bury their opposition at home (his three years at Real Madrid all saw an average of over three goals/game), that number has now dipped to 1.33 as United have struggled to break teams down.
If Mourinho is able to deliver the Europa League trophy, his first season as United boss will probably be deemed a success. However, he has put all of his eggs in the European basket, with domestic form suffering badly.
If they fail to win the competition, and the Champions League qualification that comes with it, it should be United’s poor home record that costs them – rather than any over-fatigue. United have made over 100 changes to their league XI this season, unheard of in Brian Talbot’s day.
Instead of blaming one of his many myriad of excuses, perhaps Mourinho should look a little closer to home, and if the ‘special one’ has lost some of his lustre.