In a table of matches between the current ‘big six’ since Jose Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford, Manchester United have scored just seven times in 11 games. The next lowest scorers are Tottenham, with 14, meaning every other ‘big six’ team has scored double United’s goals or more.
There is a widely-held belief that Mourinho is miscast as a defensive manager. Instead, he is simply an arch-pragmatist, that theory goes. That does not mean he necessarily favours the most defensive option, merely the strategy that is most likely to achieve success.
Last season, Manchester United’s defence performed better than their attack, so they went safety-first.
Maybe we were wrong. Before Saturday’s fixture, Liverpool looked vulnerable and frail, a soft centre displayed permanently during a run of one win in seven matches. Jurgen Klopp’s team had failed to keep a clean sheet in any of those seven games.
Given that Manchester United had scored an average of three goals per league game before Saturday, this was the perfect opportunity to make a statement about their title ambitions.
In fact, ambition was entirely lacking at Anfield. A 0-0 draw is not terminal to Manchester United’s title challenge, but it was bitterly disappointing to see Mourinho set up his team with the same strategy as their 0-0 draw in 2016/17. Ashley Young was picked on the right wing as cover for Antonio Valencia, but United’s attackers were asked to drop deep and defend, leaving Romelu Lukaku isolated and frustrated.
Mourinho will argue that one point is better than none, but surely the risk-reward strategy for United was to at least attempt to win the game? Watching such a deliberately stunted attacking display, it was impossible not to wonder ‘What would Manchester City do?’.
And the answer to that last question seems to be ‘score an awful lot of goals’. The Premier League record for the number of goals scored in a season belongs to Chelsea with 103. We may only be 21% of the way through the season, but Manchester City are currently on course to score 138. The rest of the Premier League is right to be afraid.
It is not merely the number of goals scored that emphasises City’s dominance.
They rank first in the Premier League for shots on target per game (8.0), but it is the number of touches they have had in the opposition penalty area that is most instructive. Pep Guardiola’s team are averaging 39.9 per match, 9.25 higher than Liverpool in second.
City are touching the ball in the opposition box at least 30% more than any other team.
Huddersfield attack scaling back their ambitions
Huddersfield’s defence has been excellent during their opening months in the Premier League, but the attack is quickly becoming a headache for David Wagner. Having scored three goals in the first 78 minutes of their league season at Selhurst Park, Huddersfield have scored twice since. Losing 4-0 at home to Tottenham was no disgrace; losing 2-0 at Swansea is a lot more worrying.
Since the beginning of September, Huddersfield have had ten shots on target, the lowest in the Premier League. Striker Laurent Depoitre is a trier but does not have the nous or pace to trouble proficient central defenders, while neither Elias Kachunga or Rajiv van La Parra offer the consistency required to service a striker sufficiently.
Tom Ince, who played as a central attacking midfielder against Swansea, has created only seven chances in 719 minutes and taken 22 shots without scoring.
If Tottenham have the ‘Harry Kane attack’, Huddersfield are wholly reliant on Aaron Mooy.
Amongst their players against Swansea, he ranked third for passes and first for passes made in the opposition half, fourth for touches of the ball and second for tackles and possession gained. A reminder: Mooy came on at half-time.
After the international break, a number of newspapers and media outlets asked their pundits and writers to pick their England squad to go to Russia; Andy Carroll was included multiple times. The demand for a Plan B has led to a scraping of the barrel.
Carroll has scored three Premier League goals in 2017, a mixture of poor form and poor fitness combined. When he has played for West Ham this season, the striker has struggled to hold up the ball and thus cut a frustrated figure. Being sent off for two stupid aerial challenges is indicative of that frustration leading to misplaced aggression.
Why would England want that in their squad?
How can an international manager rely on a player whose hamstring might twang and whose temper might break? The positive impact is far outweighed by the bad, and Slaven Bilic is probably having exactly the same thoughts.
Granit Xhaka has improved this season, although he could hardly have been much worse than in 2016/17, but his reactions as Watford scored their winning goal against Arsenal epitomise everything this club lacks.
Leadership and strength of character are not just about chest-beating calls to arms and diving in where you might get hurt, but displaying the hunger to do all you can until the last whistle to help your side achieve.
Xhaka is one of many who too easily allows complacency to fester. Arsenal is the perfect breeding ground for such mediocrity.