Coming away from a football match with a draw is a bit like playing Monopoly, landing on Community Chest, then selecting the card which reads “You Have Won Second Prize in a Beauty Contest — Collect $10.” That is to say, there is little reward in not coming out on top.
Obviously, one point is better than none at all. Apparently not so obvious, given how frequently clubs in all competitions prefer to settle for a draw rather than chase the win, is three points are significantly better than either. To illustrate the point, compare Juventus and Manchester United’s current seasons.
The Old Lady have lost one more match than third-placed side Napoli, despite having done an Italian Bayern in the summer for the southern club’s leading scorer, Gonzalo Higuaín. Yet, the Bianconeri enjoy a nine-point lead on the Gli Azzurri, seven over second-placed Roma. Why? Juve’s sixty-three points all derive from victories. Massimiliano Allegri’s side have yet to draw a match.
Conversely, Manchester United are pursuing five clubs in the hunt for the Premier League title largely because they are also chasing sixteenth-placed Middlesbrough for the league lead in draws. United are unbeaten in thirteen Premier League matches but have drawn six to maintain that meaningless streak. With a few more victories, March’s FA Cup quarter-final at Stamford Bridge between United and Chelsea would pit the Premier League’s top two clubs against one another. Among the teams above United, only Liverpool and Tottenham, with seven and eight respectively, are close to the Red Devils’ nine draws. Not coincidentally, they are two of the three clubs nearest the Mancunians in points (Arsenal sit a place behind Spurs on goal difference). League leaders Chelsea, also not coincidentally managed by former Juventus boss Antonio Conte, have three more victories than their nearest rival, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Gaining a point from a draw isn’t a positive. It’s merely the difference between dropping two or three points. Winning matches, rather than not losing them, wins league titles, whether you’re in the Prem, Serie A, or any other competition.
José Mourinho knows this. With eight league titles in his career, he should. Recently, he has lamented his young United squad’s unfamiliarity with winning.
“That is how you win things: step by step, or not winning but almost winning or being competitive, learning how to feel the pressure of you have a final to play, a final to win, you have semi-finals, you are in the league, your opponent loses 24 hours later, you need to win to recover these points, to feel this pressure, to cope, how to live with this. It is something that of course we don’t have enough. And the ones with a history of success where that belongs to their natural habitat? Rooney, Carrick, who else? Zlatan, but [not] in our club. Antonio Valencia and not much more.”
In his report for the Telegraph, Ian Whittle seemed to lose the plot, suggesting United’s boss was manipulating facts because Rooney had won five league titles at United, Ibra thirteen in fifteen seasons elsewhere. Mourinho’s point was the few in his side who know how to win, and Paul Pogba was (I’m assuming) unintentionally overlooked in his manager’s impromptu inventory, have either not, or have not had the required time, to effectively communicate their experience to teammates who don’t possess it.
Beyond their obvious talent, Pogba and Ibra’s winning mentalities were key factors in their recruitment. It is also why they are automatic selections for league matches and were the two players Mou brought on in the FA Cup against Blackburn to put the match to bed. Mourinho had absolutely zero interest in a replay. While cash-strapped Rovers might have appreciated the additional purse, the Portuguese had an already congested fixture list to overcome. After lavishing praise on Owen Coyle’s side for their performance, he suggested a clear decision was also in his vanquished opponent’s best interest, freeing them from a distraction to their relegation fight in the Championship. And he is right.
The question which inspired José’s lecture on winning inquired after United’s diminishing prospects for overtaking Chelsea. Applying refreshing honesty, Mourinho dismissed them. With all due respect to Leicester City, there being an exception to every rule, a champion club’s roster is not sprinkled with players who know how to win. It is dominated by them. Admittedly, Leicester learned rapidly but it appears they also forgot their lessons just as quickly. Mourinho was hired to build something more permanent. He knows his current roster hasn’t the proper attitude to accomplish the task. Giving it to them is his greatest challenge.
Instilling it is further hampered by physical limitations affecting some players who already have winning attitudes, leaving them unable to be on the pitch every match to exert their influence when it’s most needed: in the moment. Michael Carrick’s thirty-five-year-old body is not as youthful as Ibra’s. Nor is Wayne Rooney’s despite having four years on the pair. Rumors of self-interest continue to dog the United captain, as well. Regardless any truth to links with the Chinese Super League or his dissatisfaction with diminished minutes, such speculation is a distraction for the squad. It interferes with any positive message he may deliver. Bastian Schweinsteiger, who has won everything with Bayern Munich and Germany was temporarily exiled from United’s squad and has seen extremely limited playing time since being welcomed back. He has responded spectacularly when given opportunities. That, and a more positive narrative surrounding his situation, makes him a valuable mentor to younger players. Had Mourinho sufficient confidence to insert Basti into his lineup more frequently, further progress might be made. Without seeing the players in daily training, as the manager does, it appears Mou might be missing a trick here.
Then again, I’m among those who have been advocating more playing time for Juan Mata. The Spaniard, like Henrikh Mkhitaryan, has continually produced. Yet, neither have been nearly so undroppable as Zlatan or Paul Pogba. Mata was sold to Valencia by Real Madrid. From an individual standpoint, he was successful with Los Che, then with Chelsea until Mourinho returned. Similarly, Mkhitaryan was the best player at Borussia Dortmund. But BvB is not Bayern. It’s only just now an epiphany for me that Mou may be more reluctant to rely on the duo, not for doubting their talent, but because they lack the winning mentality he seeks.
In any event, I can’t argue with Mourinho’s belief his side draw so frequently because they aren’t yet ready to win. When you look at the struggles his greatest nemesis, Pep Guardiola, is enduring across town, the need for a winning mentality becomes even clearer. City have won a title more recently than United. Still, Guardiola’s rebuild at the Etihad has notably lacked the players who drove that success. Joe Hart has been exiled. Vincent Kompany has been injured. Yaya Touré and Sergio Aguero have been in and out of the lineup, their antics too often distractions rather than focal points. Pablo Zabaleta is limited to a part-time role. Unlike Mourinho’s approach, players who know how to win have been marginalized and/or disaffected. City are second to Chelsea but it is a distant second, whereas Mourinho’s sixth-placed United are within one result of overtaking their sky blue rivals. Guardiola has never managed at a club without a firmly entrenched winning tradition until this season. It’s legitimate to question whether he’s taken the only mindset he’s ever known for granted.
Legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi is credited with saying “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The misquote invites arguments over the value in effort and determination despite failure. Lombardi appreciated those qualities, actually saying,
“Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”
Examine the truth in any league table and you will see settling for a draw is just another form of losing.