There are many qualities that a Premier League-winning side needs to display. Consistency, ruthlessness and determination are all important, along with a well-balanced squad and a little luck with injuries. However, one of the most crucial is to finish the season with a good record against the main contenders for the title.
In the modern Premier League, this means that you have to perform well against the big six – Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur – if you’re going to challenge for the trophy.
This has been the blueprint followed by the most recent Premier League winners. After Chelsea switched to their back three last season, they lost just two of their remaining matches against fellow top-six sides en route to the title. The year before, Leicester City won only three of their 12 games against top-six sides, but they managed six draws and only lost three of these crucial games, ensuring that they didn’t lose any significant ground against their principle title rivals, enabling them to clinch a historic Premier League victory.
As Leicester showed, it isn’t necessary to beat all the teams in the big six, as long as you hold your own against them. Of course, if you can dominate your title rivals, you will be in an even stronger position. This time around, Manchester City have gathered an impressive 15 points out of a possible 18 from their matches against fellow top-six sides, their only defeat coming against Liverpool. That record against their main challengers is one of the key reasons why they’ve been able to open up such a large gap at the top of the table.
The big question for United fans and for José Mourinho is whether Pep Guardiola’s side can be caught this season or next. The odds of overhauling City this season are slim, but everyone would bet on United getting a top-four place, if not second. It is concerning, however, that City are also heavy favourites to win the Premier League next season, with United rated as second favourites on 5.0.
If United are going to change those calculations by pulling off a miracle this season or challenging more strongly next season, they urgently have to address their performances against fellow top-six sides. Mourinho’s men have the fifth-best record against top-six sides, better only than struggling Arsenal. United have picked up just seven points from their six games against their rivals, scoring less than a goal a game in the process.
Despite this average record against the Premier League big guns, United are still second in the table, which demonstrates that their inability to put away poorer sides – a concern last season – has largely been corrected. This part of the Mourinho template for success appears to have translated well from his time at Chelsea, Real Madrid and Internazionale.
Mourinho’s tactical style, honed at Porto and implemented to such great effect in his first spell at Chelsea, focuses on reactive play. His well-drilled teams keep things tight at the back and hit opponents quickly on the counter-attack. They are generally hard to beat and will often settle for draws against title rivals while grinding out a string of efficient victories over lesser opponents. However, those tactics are now in need of an update.
United have an excellent defensive record against fellow top-six sides; indeed only Chelsea have conceded fewer goals against their title rivals, but their record going forward is by far the worst. United have scored an average of 0.83 goals per game in these matches, compared to City’s 3 and Liverpool’s 1.9. The pattern of these performances was set early on, with a 0-0 draw at Anfield in which United managed one shot on goal.
Mourinho’s side have managed important victories in these games, beating Tottenham 1-0 at Old Trafford and pulling off a 3-1 win at Arsenal. However, even in these games, they have been second best in terms of possession and shots on goal; indeed, at the Emirates, they managed eight shots on goal to Arsenal’s 33. While conceding position and playing reactive football might have been an effective strategy during Mourinho’s first spell – when there were only two or three realistic Premier League title contenders – it has proven less effective in recent months against five other big-spending, high-quality teams all pushing for the title.
The good news for United is that they have the chance to improve on this record. They still have four games remaining against fellow top-six sides and three of those are at Old Trafford. The arrival of Alexis Sánchez should also add to their attacking threat. If Mourinho can find a way to play a slightly more expansive style in the big games against fellow top-six sides, it could prove to be the key to unlocking the Premier League title.