“Once more, we deserved to win by far but we didn’t. We lost two points and a good opportunity to close the gap.”
As José Mourinho reflected on again seeing his Manchester United dominate a game at Old Trafford yet fail to come away with all three points, he seemed to point to a lack of luck in front of goal and the opposition’s ability to raise their performance at the Theatre of Dreams, rather than look to examine his own team’s failings too deeply.
“It was more of the same again. The Man of the Match was the opposition goalkeeper,” the former Real Madrid and Inter Milan boss said following his side’s 1-1 draw with Bournemouth last weekend. “It's incredible the number of chances we missed. We played amazing football in the first half; it should be 3-0 or 4-0 and I don’t know how it ended 1-1.
“In the second half, we lost a little bit of the quality and dimesion of good football we had in the first half against opponents who, more or less, decided — and I’m not critical of that — to give up and just to defend.”
United racked up 20 shots to the Cherries’ three, and hit the target seven times with the away side’s only accurate effort being Joshua King’s 40th-minute equaliser from the penalty spot.
Mourinho’s men also enjoyed a 69 per cent share of possession against Bournemouth, who were down to 10 men for the entirety of the second period thanks to Andrew Surman’s dismissal, and completed over 300 more passes than their visitors.
xG map for Manchester United – Bournemouth.
my heart might explode from happiness pic.twitter.com/7YSySwJ6pJ
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) March 4, 2017
It was a dominant display from the 20-time champions and Mourinho is right to point out that the usually shaky Artur Boruc put in an outstanding performance between the sticks for Eddie Howe’s side, even saving a 72nd-minute Zlatan Ibrahimović penalty.
However, United’s failure to overcome an inferior and disadvantaged foe cannot be simply written off as bad luck. Were it an anomaly, a one-off amid a march of home victories for the EFL Cup winners, then maybe misfortune could be blamed. But having endured similar afternoons in home draws against Stoke City, Burnley and Hull City this term, there is a worrying pattern emerging for Mourinho to contemplate.
As journalist Andy Mitten pointed out on Twitter after the Bournemouth draw, United’s 42.8 per cent win rate in the league this season is the club’s lowest average since 1990, when the Red Devils were 13th in the division and in the latter stages of what would be a 25-year title drought.
MUFC have a home win percentage of 42.8% in the league this season. You have to go back to 1990, when team finished 13th, to go below that.
— Andy Mitten (@AndyMitten) March 4, 2017
At the heart of this barren run at their once fortress-like home ground lies a profligacy which is threatening to cripple their season.
United’s 343 chances created this term is a figure that can only be bettered by Tottenham Hotspur (352) and Liverpool (365) – both of whom the Manchester club currently holds a game in hand over — yet they rank seventh in the Premier League for goals scored.
A more damning statistic is that United are currently positioned 19th of the 20 Premier League clubs when it comes to chance conversion. On average this season the Red Devils have needed 8.79 chances for every goal scored, with only Southampton (9.19) being less efficient in front of goal.
Indeed, United’s 8.79 chances per goal sees them fall some way short of the divisional average of 6.71.
Ibrahimović has rightly been praised for the way he has carried his side’s goal-scoring burden by hitting the net 26 times already this season, but the 35-year-old is also United’s biggest culprit when it comes to missing chances.
In a bizarre reversal of the usual pattern, the Swedish striker has produced the goods in the biggest games, scoring goals against Liverpool, Manchester City and in last month’s EFL Cup final win over Southampton, yet has missed a string of opportunities against Burnley and Bournemouth.
Paradoxically, Ibrahimović is the joint-fifth highest scorer in the Premier League with 15 goals, but his 17 missed “clear cut” chances makes him the most wasteful player in the division, with Bournemouth’s Benik Afobe ranked next with a comparatively paltry nine major misses.
United have been linked with big-money summer moves for top class strikers for months now, which gives the impression that Mourinho recognises the issue he is faced with and is preparing to seek a resolution.
However, with a top four finish slipping from his grasp, the Portuguese coach must find a remedy for his side’s wastefulness much sooner than the summer transfer window.
There is a case to be made that United have become too reliant of Ibrahimović to provide their goals, with no other member of their squad having yet reached double figures in all competitions in 2016-17 – Juan Mata is their second-highest scorer with nine.
Yet could it be true that, with the Red Devils’ style of play geared towards finding the former AC Milan and Barcelona star in advanced areas, Ibrahimović has become a kind of vacuum for their scoring chances?
The veteran forward has taken 64 shots inside the penalty area in league action this term, twice as many as Paul Pogba (32), and more than three times as many as any other United player except Mata (26).
Ibrahimović will be suspended for the next three fixtures – including an FA Cup quarter-final away trip to Chelsea – following a retrospective ban for an elbow on Tyrone Mings that initially went unpunished last weekend.
With the Swede out of the picture and being given a long overdue, if enforced, period of rest, Mourinho must seek an alternative in the striker’s position. Captain Wayne Rooney will be a contender but the youthful exuberance and raw pace of Marcus Rashford is a much more attractive proposition to fans.
Ibrahimović’s short absence may end up doing United the power of good, forcing Mourinho to figure out a way for his side to create and score chances without their talismanic No.9.
Then, when the main man returns, there might just be a plan B in place for those afternoons when Ibrahimović is not at the races.
Cursing bad luck will do no good; a new route to goal must be found.