At the end of every season, Jose Mourinho complies a dossier for his paymasters, detailing exactly what his side needs to win the Premier League title in the following campaign. That’s why the Portuguese has such an exceptional record in second seasons – by the end of a first term that’s allowed him to make a full evaluation of the squad, he’s already documented to the acutest detail its strengths, its weaknesses and the players it needs to assert dominance over the rest of the division.
Although there are no leaked editions of the dossier handed to Ed Woodward at the end of a 2016/17 campaign that saw United finish 24 points away from the Premier League’s summit, after five league games of the new season and roughly £150million spent during the summer, we can make some logical assumptions. With Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof all arriving and two becoming focal points of United’s remodified starting XI, it’s quite clear that height and power in central areas were amongst the key words, if not the analytical crux of the document itself.
What is less obvious, however, is whether late goals were also a part of Mourinho’s dossier. Intentionally or not, and for better or worse, last-minute strikes have become intertwined the rich tapestry of Manchester United’s history; from the legendary stoppage time turnaround in the Champions League final to Sergio Aguero’s title-clinching winner against QPR. Since the Red Devils’ last season under Sir Alex Ferguson, though, which saw them score the fourth-most post-75-minutes goals of any Premier League side despite being largely uncontested in their title pursuit, that intrinsic aspect has been missing from their game. Somewhat connected, there has been a unsettling feeling of unfamiliarity at Old Trafford, too.
Whether by fate or design, late goals have been a defining attribute of a start to the season that has seen United claim 13 points from a possible 15, win three games by a 4-0 scoreline and concede just two goals. In fact, United have scored more goals in the last fifteen minutes of games than they have in the opening 75, and 29% of all the post-75-minutes goals in the Premier League.
Their closest competitor is Manchester City with six compared to their nine, and after that no Premier League team has scored more than two. Quite a drastic difference. While some may use that as an argument to suggest United have flattered to deceive – especially considering they’re the only member of last season’s top six yet to face another – by going into flat-track bully mode when they know the game is already won, it’s unquestionably a consequence of how consistently and relentlessly they’ve ground down their opponents in the opening stages.
Indeed, whereas United’s lust for late goals under Ferguson was sourced from their mental strength and unwavering faith in achieving the result they needed, their knack of doing so under Mourinho stems from physical strength. It’s clear Mourinho has built this side to go the distance, not only throughout the course of a season but also individual sets of ninety minutes, and the consequence is quite simply, United having more in the tank when their opponents are on their last legs.
That’s evident in the statistics, most particularly the fact United have produced almost exactly the same amount of shots and dribbles in the last 15 minutes as they averaged per 15 minutes in the prior 75, 24 and 18 compared to 23 and 18 respectively. That shows it’s not a case of the Red Devils stepping into a higher gear upon sensing the weakness of a tired and demoralised opposition in the closing stages, rather that they can simply maintain their performance levels at a point in the game when the other side can’t.
Why they can’t, of course, is as much about inevitability as it is the work United have done in the first 75 minutes to meticulously grind them down, stretching them with the pace of Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial and bullying them with the height and power of Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic.
The match simply gets to a point where the opposition are too tired to keep up, which also explains why United’s shots to goals ratio (3.4 dropping to 2.6) drastically improves after 75 minutes, even though the number of attempts at goal doesn’t. What the statistics don’t tell us is the quality of chances; once the opposition backline is weary, the space for Lukaku and company increases and the quality of chances created inevitably improves.
Currently, it’s proving a sure-fire strategy, but to keep it up over a whole season will require vastly improved management of United’s squad than what we saw from Mourinho during his last title-winning season at Chelsea. That side too was built upon power and height in most departments, but by the final few months of the season, despite exiting the FA Cup and the Champions League early, it was clear the Blues had run out of steam – even world-class physical specimens suffer from fatigue. They could only jog over the finishing line in the title race and the true effects were felt in the following campaign, when Mourinho’s tenure catastrophically imploded.
The good news this time is that Mourinho does have a much vaster, much more varied and much more experienced squad at his disposal. Last season’s Player of the Year Ander Herrera and England international Chris Smalling, for example, have hardly seen the light of day this term. But it ultimately rests on Mourinho’s ability to rotate effectively and how much trust he places in his depth – something he failed to do at Stamford Bridge. If United are to maintain their machine-like mantra and continue punishing teams late on for the rest of the season, the key players must stay fresh.