Much of Jose Mourinho’s reputation as one of the finest managers in football history is built upon the notion that he is the man for the big occasion.
A serial trophy winner across spells with Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid, the Portuguese does not have to search too far for examples to back up this perception.
When he returned to Chelsea for the 2013-14 Premier League season, Mourinho insisted the Stamford Bridge club were in a rebuilding phase and that a title tilt was not realistic.
In the event, the Blues went far closer than their manager suggested was possible and bloodied the noses of that season’s top two in the process, through wins home and away at Manchester City and Liverpool. Mourinho remained a man to be feared when the stakes were high.
The title returned to west London the following year before a shambolic campaign in its defence saw Mourinho sacked in December 2015.
Now approaching a year-and-a-half in charge at Old Trafford, the 54-year-old is in the hunt for major honours again but, as Manchester United prepare to travel to his old club Chelsea, something in Mourinho’s big-game make-up seems to have changed.
Nine games, no wins, one goal
United’s masterful 2-0 victory against Chelsea on home soil last season arguably placed their boss Antonio Conte into a funk from which he is yet to fully emerge.
Mourinho also edged out in-form Tottenham Hotspur last week but his record away from home against teams from the Premier League’s top six is dismal over the recent past.
Across spells with Chelsea and United, his last nine matches away from home against fellow English heavyweights have not produced a single win.
This is mainly down to the fact that Wayne Rooney’s goal at White Hart Lane last May is the only one a Mourinho side has scored in these matches.
Mourinho’s fruitless run on the road
26/04/15 Arsenal 0 Chelsea 0
16/08/15 City 3 Chelsea 0
29/11/15 Spurs 0 Chelsea 0
17/10/16 Liverpool 0 United 0
23/10/16 Chelsea 4 United 0
27/04/17 City 0 United 0
07/05/17 Arsenal 2 United 0
14/05/17 Spurs 2 United 1
14/10/17 Liverpool 0 United 0
Parking the bus?
Accusations that Mourinho adopts an overly defensive mindset on the road are nothing new.
In April 2014, when he threw an almighty spanner in the works of Liverpool’s title bid, then Reds boss Brendan Rodgers accused him of “parking two buses” at Anfield.
Despite limited attacking ambition, Chelsea won 2-0 against a team in prime form.
By contrast, Mourinho came in for criticism when he left Merseyside with a goalless draw last month – Jurgen Klopp’s suspect Liverpool backline barely tested during a dour stalemate.
Since their manager took charge at the start of last season, United average 15.4 shots per game in the Premier League.
But over the nine games we are examining, Mourinho’s teams only managed eight shots on average per 90 minutes.
United face 9.6 shots per game under Mourinho, but this number goes up to 13.5 for the matches in question, while possession drops from 56.4 per cent to 42.9 per cent. Passing accuracy is also down from 84 per cent to 77.4 per cent.
Passes per game fall from 530.75 for United to 408.4 during Mourinho’s past nine games against top-six opponents.
The White Hart Lane effect
In the match before the sample in question, Chelsea’s title march in 2014-15 was interrupted by a New Years’ Day barnstormer at Tottenham. The hosts eventually prevailed 5-3 in a thrilling contest.
Chelsea’s 19 shots that day is higher than in any of Mourinho’s subsequent top-six encounters, and the 53.8 per cent possession is only eclipsed once.
Only Manchester City – in an August 2015 3-0 win over Chelsea – are able to match Spurs’ eight shots on target over this period.
Last season’s United games at Arsenal and Spurs can be held in mitigation, as Mourinho fielded weakened sides to prioritise the successful bid for Europa League glory.
But there can be little doubt some of the devil has deserted an overly pragmatic approach since the Tottenham thriller.
“We came to kill and, in 10 minutes, we destroyed,” Mourinho said after his Chelsea routed Arsenal to ruin Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game in charge in March 2014.
With Conte’s defence reeling from a 3-0 stuffing at Roma in midweek, the United boss’ recently strained relationship with supporters could be eased by going all out to hurt Chelsea.
It is time for Mourinho to park pragmatism, not the bus, and fully restore his big-game credentials.