Man United's continued inability to put opponents away could kill their season
LIVERPOOL, England -- It was an appropriate choice of music by the Goodison Park tannoy operator as Everton and Manchester United trudged off the pitch at the end of a forgettable 1-1 draw.
"I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" by Elton John drifted throughout the stadium at full-time and the line suggesting that "things can only get better" perhaps summed up the current state of two teams who are seriously under-performing this season.
For Everton, who had gone into this game having won just one of their last nine games in all competitions, the point earned by Leighton Baines's 88th minute penalty (courtesy of a moment of madness by substitute Marouane Fellaini) will be regarded as a positive by manager Ronald Koeman. It's something his team can now build on even though their performance was fairly insipid and uninspiring. But for Jose Mourinho, this was Groundhog Day all over again. Another game that his players have dominated, another one that has resulted in them earning just one point.
United have won just once in the Premier League since defeating champions Leicester City on Sept. 24 -- an easy victory at relegation-threatened Swansea City -- and they are now languishing in seventh position, one point above West Bromwich Albion. They go into next Sunday's Old Trafford encounter with Tottenham Hotspur six points behind Mauricio Pochettino's fifth-placed team, in danger of being cut adrift of the leading clubs and facing the prospect of playing the second half of the season in the Premier League's twilight zone.
"Is this what they are?" asked former United captain Gary Neville at the end of the game, when wondering whether the team has become too brittle. "Mourinho will be losing faith in them now." In contrast, the United manager was quick to defend his players after their latest failure to translate dominance into victory, insisting, "We were best team on the pitch by far and it is a result that doesn't reflect the difference of the performances of both teams."
Mourinho went on. "To perform in five consecutive matches against difficult opposition, I am so happy with the individual performances.
"How do we change results? We need to score more goals: if Ander Herrera scores rather than hits the post, it is 2-0, end of game and goodbye."
This is fairly simple analysis by Mourinho but he's not too far wrong when he identifies his team's failure to convert their chances as the key issue which must be addressed. It is proving to be easier said than done, though, and the inability to win games they're dominating is beginning to have a corrosive effect on confidence. Defender Phil Jones admitted on Sunday that too many victories are being carelessly thrown away.
"We're losing too many points now," Jones said. "It is becoming a trend and it needs to stop. There are four or five games that I can think of when we have dominated and failed to win. Today, it has happened again."
Jones' words betray the reality that United's players are now conscious of their failings and it threatens to become a weight around their shoulders. While the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea are displaying the ability to punish opponents, ruthlessly converting chances in convincing wins, United are giving teams too many chances to claim a lifeline as Everton did at Goodison.
Koeman's team were abject for long periods, with United carving out a succession of chances to finish them off following Zlatan Ibrahimovic's spectacular 43rd-minute opener. But Fellaini, thrown on by Mourinho to nullify Everton's aerial threat, highlighted his dubious qualities when the ball's on the ground by bundling Idrissa Gueye over in the penalty area, giving referee Michael Oliver no option but to award the home team a penalty.
Speaking about his old Goodison teammate in his role as a pundit after the game, former Everton midfielder Leon Osman was almost laughing when he revealed that "we used to want Fellaini as far from our goal as possible when we were defending because he was always liable to do something that like that."
Mourinho, diplomatically, claimed he had not seen the foul -- he gave an identical response when asked about Marcos Rojo escaping a first-half red card for a wild two-footed challenge on Gueye -- but his televised reaction gave a truer version of his thoughts.
Overall, Mourinho can look at his team and claim that United are now looking more solid defensively, more organised in midfield and playing with a general sense of belief in the manager's methods. They certainly look more convincing than the same date three years ago, when a home defeat to Everton under David Moyes exposed the developing chaos under the Scot.
But while Mourinho's United may well be a work in progress, they simply do not have the time to develop slowly. Antonio Conte is transforming Chelsea on fast-forward at Stamford Bridge while Jurgen Klopp is also making a difference at Liverpool, regardless of their late capitulation against Bournemouth.
Things truly can only get better, but it is taking too long and United are losing touch with the clubs they should be competing with.
If they fail to defeat Spurs next Sunday, there will be no way back this season.
Mark is a Senior Football Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_