Manchester United's attack misfired one more time against West Ham United at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon. The game finished as the fourth draw in a row at home in the Premier League. Three of those have ended 1-1.
Jose Mourinho has been sent off in two of them. In both cases, frustrations over refereeing decisions were the trigger points, but it is hard not to imagine they have boiled to the surface so readily as a consequence of the general level of irritation he must feel about his team's results.
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#MUFC boss Jose Mourinho facing a two-match ban after being sent to the stands against West Ham: https://t.co/UR7RPas3Ip https://t.co/ZeoBOnbUDJ2016-11-28 10:05:04
This draw was, in truth, something of a disaster in terms of its impact on United's season.
The Stoke City draw could be written off as a fluke. The Burnley draw felt like an outlier as it was happening, such was United's dominance. The Arsenal draw was much more of a problem given the points that had already been dropped and the missed opportunity to deny the Gunners a point given their superior league position.
Sunday's draw leaves United sixth, eight points off the Champions League spots and 11 off first.
After 13 games, this is still not insurmountable, but it is a serious deficit, especially given that all five of the teams above the Red Devils are perennial campaigners for those spots.
The number that leaps out from a look at the league table is "three." That is United's goal difference—in the positive column but bizarrely short of where it should be in terms of shots taken and chances created.
It's frustrating at the moment but watching United under Jose Mourinho has become enjoyable again. Shots, touchline antics. I'm happy.2016-11-28 10:39:56
Some of this would appear to be down to the cruel whim of fate. As the Hammers earned their creditable point, United fans were left wondering when and if the extended spell of bad luck, poor finishing, good goalkeeping and questionable refereeing that has dominated the last couple of months of league football at Old Trafford would end.
But the manager—while he has clearly made United a much more dangerous prospect than they were in Louis van Gaal's desperately dull second season—does have a case to answer on one or two points.
It is hard not to think a couple of specific tweaks could have made a big difference against West Ham, and the distraction of getting sent off again could not have helped much.
He had heavily hinted that Henrikh Mkhitaryan would be part of the United starting XI, but in the end, the Armenian and Wayne Rooney were replaced by the homegrown duo of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford.
Manchester United @ManUtd
Six changes from midweek as De Gea, Rojo, Darmian, Herrera, Lingard and Rashford return to the #MUFC starting XI. #MUNWHU https://t.co/m33SHjJQew2016-11-27 15:30:53
Lingard scored a brilliant goal in the latter stages of United's dominant 4-0 Europa League win over Feyenoord on Thursday night, but Mkhitaryan had been man of the match in what felt like a kind of second United debut.
Leaving him out after that performance may have been based in sound sports science—he had had a long break from football before his 82-minute run-out against the Dutch side, so another appearance from the start a couple of days later might have been physically risky.
Given how good his performance was, though, it seemed an odd move—especially given Rashford has been seriously struggling for form during his recent extended spell on the wings. There was a momentum cost to both Mkhitaryan's form and United's attack as a whole.
For example, Lingard's first act of note was to give away a free-kick in dangerous territory, particularly significant given the presence of Dimitri Payet in West Ham United's lineup. It proved as costly as it could have done, as Diafra Sakho got ahead of Ibrahimovic to head home after two minutes. The feelgood factor of the Feyenoord game had faded fast.
Lingard did slip a through ball to Rashford in what was just about United's first moment of functional attacking football at around the six-minute mark, but the fluency and threat that Mkhitaryan, Rooney and Juan Mata had provided against Feyenoord was distinctly lacking.
Events rather overtook the game for a while. United found some fluency again—a Lingard flick in the middle of the pitch opened up an attacking move.
Duncan Castles @DuncanCastles
Twenty-two passes in build up to Ibrahimovic's goal. All 11 Manchester Utd players involved. Shame Mourinho's teams play so direct. #MUNWHU2016-11-27 17:09:14
By the time Paul Pogba's superb pass found Ibrahimovic for their equaliser, it felt well-deserved. All 11 players were involved in the move at some point. United were back at the races.
After a lull caused by the events kicked off by Pogba's adjudged dive—which, incidentally, looked a lot more like a leap over a kick he was about to receive—the Red Devils gradually reasserted themselves.
This culminated in a glorious chance for Rashford that the 19-year-old spurned. Then, when half-time was looming, Lingard's brilliant flick found Pogba, who picked out Ibrahimovic. The Swede's shot was blocked, but United's attack had clearly grown into the game.
Moments later, Lingard got on the end of a Mata pass in the box, and his goal-bound shot was well saved by Darren Randolph. Here was ample evidence of improvement.
The second half started with a long flat period. Although Rashford's confidence has to be handled with some care, it was surprising that a manager famed for a decisive, ruthless approach to substitutions waited as long as he did to make the change given how poor the youngster had been.
Marcus Rashford is not a winger. Marcus Rashford is not a winger. Marcus Rashford is not a winger. Marcus Rashford is not a winger. Marcus R2016-11-27 16:44:58
The decision to take off Mata was as predictable as it was ridiculous. United's captain for this game, Mata had scored two in two. He had made three key passes by that point in the game, per WhoScored.com. But as he has been in all but one of his starts this season, he was substituted.
And not for the first time, his removal came with United badly needing a goal.
No one can say for certain what would have happened in an alternate universe where he was not removed, but it was hard not to think a player in that kind of form would've been more useful on the pitch than on the bench.
The new-look attack did nearly make an instant impact. A deflected Matteo Darmian through ball found its way to Lingard. With quick feet, he found Ibrahimvoic, who deftly slipped the ball through to Rooney. The England captain's shot was poor, a portend of the frustration that was to define the next spell of the game.
Lingard had a decent shot from outside of the box. Mkhitaryan's blocked shot found its way to him, and he used some neat close control to engineer a yard of space. The contact was not quite what he would have wanted it to be, and Randolph was not much troubled as he made the save.
For a split second, it seemed that the young England international had given the Red Devils what would have been a deserved lead, as he tapped home a Mkhitaryan shot that had ricocheted off the post into his path. He was offside. The exasperation around Old Trafford was tangible.
Now some of this is down to the vagaries of fortune. If the last four home league draws were played in the same pattern 100 times, United would surely win a majority of each of them.
But some of it is on Mourinho, too. The Mkhitaryan decision, for example. "This performance gives him the right to believe he can play the next match" was the manager's message after the Feyenoord game. Instead, an out-of-sorts Rashford was selected.
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"This performance gives him the right to believe he can play the next match." Jose Mourinho on @HenrikhMkh: https://t.co/3pNiopE5sH #MUFC https://t.co/jOuLK9jOQ72016-11-25 11:06:13
Rooney might also have considered himself unlucky not to get a start given his performances against Swansea City, Arsenal and in the Europa League.
However, Lingard made a pretty positive impact, and barring two beautiful passes out to Antonio Valencia on the right flank—a classic Rooney stock-in-trade—the captain did little to assert his claim for a place once he did come on.
The timing of the substitutions was an issue, and the sideshow of the manager's dismissal did not help.
All of this means that the pattern of the last few weeks has become a serious problem. The eight points they sit off a Champions League place are easily accounted for by the draws that probably should have been wins against Stoke, Burnley and West Ham.
But while United deserved to win all three of those games, and were also pretty unlucky to concede to an otherwise almost totally blunt Arsenal side at Old Trafford, the facts remain.
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Jose Mourinho is spending a lot of time watching Manchester United from a distance 😏 https://t.co/Xs5a0AQyQH2016-11-28 01:30:00
There have already been too many points dropped to even think about the league title, and Champions League qualification will be a high-wire act. Given how United's luck has run so far this season, there is no guarantee that the kind of consistent spell that is needed will be achieved.
Ultimately, though, while there have been mistakes made, the fact they have created such an overwhelming number of chances in their past few home league games does speak to a fundamental improvement over the Louis van Gaal era.
It might be that the frustration and inconsistencies of the early part of this season cost United dear in the short term, but in the medium term, there seems little doubt the ship is moving in the right direction.