Jamie Carragher has suggested Jose Mourinho’s approach against the rest of the big six could cost Manchester United the Premier League title – but does he have a point?
Mourinho was once again criticised for a conservative approach in United‘s 0-0 draw at Anfield on Saturday, with Manchester City’s 7-2 win over Stoke City on the same day moving them two points clear at the top of the table.
Carragher was not one of those criticising Mourinho, but he believes United could be left to rue dropped points in games such as Saturday’s come the end of the season.
“First of all I should say I had no problem whatsoever with what Jose Mourinho did,” Carragher said on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football. “He’s always done it and I expected it before the game.
“Jurgen Klopp said afterwards that Liverpool could never play like that; well maybe his Liverpool could never play like that, but my Liverpool did and we did it plenty of times and got results on the back of it.
“I think the criticism will be saved until the end of the season if results in big away games don’t improve and it costs Manchester United the title.”
Carragher’s sentiments have been echoed by others, especially with Pep Guardiola’s City playing with a swashbuckling attacking verve at the top of the table, but is there any truth in the suggestion that doing well against the rest of the top six is key to ending the season as champions?
We’ve looked back at the past three seasons to see how the champions fared against the division’s big six – Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool – to see if it did indeed affect their prospects.
2016-17 – Chelsea
Record vs big six: 16 out of 30 possible points
Team with best record vs big six: Liverpool – 20 points (finished fourth, 17 points behind Chelsea)
2015-16 – Leicester City
Record vs big six: 17 out of 36 points
Team with best record vs big six: Manchester United – 18 points (finished fifth, 15 points behind Leicester)
2014-15 – Chelsea
Record vs big six: 17 out of 30 points
Team with best record vs big six: Manchester United – 18 points (finished fourth, 17 points behind Chelsea)
Judging by the last three seasons, a team’s record against those who might be considered their title rivals is certainly not the be all and end all in deciding whether they will go on to finish top of the Premier League.
In fact, the clubs to have finished top of the big six mini-league have finished 17, 15 and 17 points behind the champions respectively.
Interestingly, Manchester United under Louis van Gaal account for two of those teams, which suggests Mourinho may be justified in his approach in focusing on improving the Red Devils’ record against the division’s weaker sides and simply ensuring they do not lose the so-called big games.
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We have already seen that in Mourinho’s last title-winning campaign in the Premier League – 2014-15, at Chelsea – he did not finish top of the mini-league. He has always been more concerned with not losing, rather than winning, the big matches against title rivals.
However, going back to his initial spell at Stamford Bridge, when he won back-to-back titles in his first two seasons, he definitely seemed to hold the upper hand on his contemporaries.
It’s fair to say there was not as much competition at the top of the Premier League table in 2004-05 or 2005-06, given Manchester City were yet to be taken over and Tottenham were lacking the consistency of recent years, so we have instead taken into account results against the traditional top four at the time – Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.
Record vs big four: 15 out of 18 points
Team with best record vs big four: Chelsea
Record vs big four: 14 out of 18 points
Team with best record vs big four: Chelsea
In his first two seasons in England, Mourinho fared much better in these fixtures, finishing ‘top’ of the mini-leagues on both occasions while going on to claim the title.
Among those results were a 3-1 win at Old Trafford, a 4-1 win at Anfield and a 3-0 win over United at Stamford Bridge, so he was evidently unafraid of allowing his teams to attack in these fixtures.
Perhaps the increase in competition at the top of the table has caused Mourinho to change his approach – he knows that if he can avoid defeat, United’s rivals face ‘tougher’ games more frequently than in the past and are thus more likely to drop points.
Or perhaps Mourinho has just become more conservative, haunted by the fear of failure against his rivals.
Either way, it’s easy to see the justification to his methods: if Manchester United needed to improve against the weaker teams, it is in fact those fixtures which determine the title winners.
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