MANCHESTER — From the first day he walked into Old Trafford last summer, Jose Mourinho was telling people he had identified the central factor in Manchester United’s failure to compete in the Premier League under Louis van Gaal: goals, or rather the lack of them.
It was a simple observation, but with United scoring just 49 goals in 38 league games last season, Mourinho confided in club staff that neither Marcus Rashford nor Anthony Martial were experienced enough to shoulder the goal-scoring burden, while Wayne Rooney was no longer able to perform the central striker role consistently enough to contribute 20 goals.
Mourinho believed he had solved the problem by recruiting Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain, but the 35-year-old has shown this season that he is not the solution. Meanwhile, the manager’s instincts about Rashford, Martial and Rooney have proved to be correct.
However, until Olivier Giroud headed Arsenal’s 89th-minute equaliser at Old Trafford on Saturday, United looked to have been on course to get away with their failure to convert a succession of chances against Arsene Wenger’s team.
Juan Mata’s opener, 20 minutes earlier, was long overdue for United and undoubtedly deserved, yet before it arrived United had huffed and puffed without once threatening to blow Arsenal down by putting the ball into the back of the net.
It was deja vu all over again. United had dominated against Stoke City last month, but ended up with a 1-1 draw and, in their last game at Old Trafford, had 37 shots on goal against Burnley but still trudged off the pitch with only a point following a 0-0 draw and a heroic performance by goalkeeper Tom Heaton.
“Against Stoke we could have won by five or six, but we draw,” Mourinho said. “Against Burnley we could have scored five or six, but we draw, while against Arsenal today, we could have scored two or three, but we draw again.”
It is an issue that has plagued Wenger for over a decade at Arsenal and the Frenchman has never quite managed to find a player capable of scoring even half of the goals that Thierry Henry once contributed. Yet the Gunners are starting to pick up a habit of claiming points where they were not deserved. Giroud’s goal — coming from Arsenal’s only shot on target — was the latest example, as Wenger’s team found the cutting edge where United could not to end the game.
“I am happy with the work and happy with the guys,” Mourinho added. “But, at the moment, we are the unluckiest team in the Premier League.”
Is it all bad luck, though, or is Mourinho paying the price for the makeup of his squad?
When you also consider Ibrahimovic’s missed header against Liverpool during October’s 0-0 draw at Anfield, and a similarly wasted effort by the Swede when United trailed 1-0 at Chelsea — they eventually crashed to a 4-0 defeat — it is becoming painfully obvious where United’s, and Mourinho’s, problems lie.
United’s defence and midfield continue to have their flaws and remain works in progress, but there have been signs of those areas being developed under Mourinho — the 90 minutes at Anfield perhaps being the best example of that.
In front of goal, however, United are suffering from a recurring nightmare. Chances are being created, through the middle and from the flanks, but they just cannot put the ball into the back of the net.
It is an unusual issue for a Mourinho team, but the reality is that his United squad lacks the centre-forward that has defined each of the Portuguese coach’s previous teams and until he rectifies that problem, it is impossible to envisage United becoming a real attacking force.
Why Mourinho failed to do more in the summer to address a problem he had already identified is a mystery. Did he really believe that an aging Ibrahimovic could do for United what the likes of Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Diego Milito (Inter) and Benni McCarthy (Porto) have done for him at his previous clubs?
Wherever he has been successful, Mourinho has built his team around a centre-forward of presence and pace.
McCarthy helped lead Porto to Champions League glory in 2004, while Drogba was Chelsea’s goal-scoring battering ram in Mourinho’s first spell in charge of Chelsea. At Inter Milan, a younger and fitter Ibrahimovic guided Mourinho to Serie A success before Milito helped to deliver a second Champions League title in 2010.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were Mourinho’s attacking aces at Real Madrid, while Diego Costa was signed for Chelsea as Drogba’s long-term successor, scoring the goals to win the Premier League in his first season at Stamford Bridge.
But United have lacked a striker to compare to any of the above since Robin van Persie inspired Sir Alex Ferguson’s team to the title in 2013. Rooney has not been convincing as a No. 9 since before Ferguson retired and Radamel Falcao was simply too lightweight to succeed when he was signed on loan by Van Gaal.
Mourinho is now desperate for a striker of real pedigree, though, and the right signing would prove the difference between success and failure.
Antoine Griezmann is a player on United’s radar, but the Atletico Madrid forward is not a classic Mourinho centre-forward. Robert Lewandowski would fit the profile — a powerful, hard-working, quick, goal scorer — but prising him away from Bayern Munich would be a tough challenge. Tottenham’s Harry Kane may prove more realistic, especially with the England forward facing a contract stand-off with his club, but United are certainly not going to be able to find the right man in January.
So Mourinho must work with what he has by coaxing more from Ibrahimovic, reviving Rooney and ensuring that Rashford and Martial’s development does not stall due to a lack of success in front of goal.
The United manager knows the importance of a reliable striker — his success has been built on their goals — and he will be aware that his club will continue to struggle until he finds the right man to put the ball in the net for him.
Mark is a Senior Football Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_