Heading into the international break at the beginning of October, United looked unrecognisable from the side that scored fewer goals than Bournemouth in 2016-2017. New signings Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic have structured United’s shape, allowing players like Henrik Mhikitaryan and Anthony Martial the space to break out of the defensive dungeon Mourinho had forced upon them the year before.
Nine wins out of ten in all competitions, with 32 goals in return for 4 setting up 7 clean sheets. Not a bad start.
However, with one stale victory out of 3 and a first defeat to Huddersfield Town for 65 years on Saturday as the Sky Blues march on under the heavenly hand of Pep Guardiola, questions must be asked. It is this blatant comparison of tactical rivalry alongside the tedious Mourinho traits that inform a damning critique of a money-drenched, under-achieving, yet promising band of Red Devils.
False sense of security
By early September, Manchester United were grabbing headlines. Free-flowing, attacking football on the break blew the dust off a creaking Old Trafford ground, reaping 22 goals in 7 matches, four 4-goal hauls, and a spot at the top of the scoring charts for Lukaku. Undoubtedly, Mourinho’s second-season syndrome was kicking in. However, doubts could surface when you acknowledge the fact that of the 4 PL teams they played in September, three are currently placed 17th or lower, with a combined goal difference of -38.
On the other side of Manchester, Champions League rivals Liverpool were hit for 5, and last season’s champions were humbled a goal to nil in their own backyard. Out of context the difference was negligible at the break for World Cup qualifiers – after all, the top of the Premier League was separated by a single goal – but the flair and fortune of the Manchester giants has been markedly differing since then, beginning at Anfield on October 14th.
Mourinho won’t budge
In October 2016, United scraped 3 points away from Anfield with an attack centred around the elbows of Marouane Fellaini. Nevertheless, in Mourinho’s first season this would prove to be a precious win, accompanied by a record 15 draws and fewer goals than mid-table miracles Bournemouth.
Fast-forward a year, and United were running riot, full of confidence with goals overtaking draws as Mourinho’s preferred commodity. A new start, a new squad, and a chance to rub the nose of a bitter, struggling rival in the dust and dirt. Throughout an international break void of any resemblance of attacking football, English Premier League stars were made to look amateur in a broken setup. The mouth-watering prospect of one of the biggest matches of the year after England were done boring Lithuanian fans in the name of football, was exhilarating for both sets of fans.
Unfortunately for them, the team sheets brought haunting memories of 0-0 draws and a brain-numbing lack of attack. Setting up with 5 at the back is never a good sign for the purists.
Mourinho, whether you admire his style or not, loves a scrap against the big teams, aiming to break the waves of attack teams like Liverpool and City conjure up rather than breaking the opposition’s defence with his own team’s creativity.
However, the efficiency of his style in big games is becoming increasingly outdated. Ten years ago, the battle at the top of the league centred around four teams. With Spurs and City cementing their place alongside the ‘Big Four’ in recent years, the ‘Big Four’ has become the top 6. Only last week Jamie Carragher pointed out an unsurprising statistic: since 2015, Mourinho has not won away from home in any of his top 6 encounters (D5 L5, Sky Sports).
For a mid-table side, digging your heels in against a top side or rival is expected and often necessary. However, when you are one of the biggest clubs in the world hitting a sharp run of form whilst fighting on all fronts in a hotly contested title and Champions League race, crawling back into your corner to fight for your life doesn’t seem sustainable, with the battle at the top now shared across 30 points, rather than 18. Whilst it is understandable against a bitter rival away from home, I would focus on the immediate effect it has had on the team.
All teams can have dips in form, but often football pundits and faithful fans are scared to pinpoint triggers or weaknesses that have caused a drop, simply because managers are put (or in Mourinho’s case put there themselves) on a pedestal above the watching crowds.
Liverpool (A) 0-0 D
Benfica (A) 1-0 W
Huddersfield Town (A) 2-1 L
(Hardly the stuff of champions.)
Had Benfica been a blip and another 4-0 thrashing against a bottom half side restored order, perhaps I would not be writing this. But it is the manner, style and direction of the team’s play that I would focus on…
Note: Some United fans may want to turn away now, as I dive into comparisons with the Sky Blue half of Manchester. Deemed to be the two-legged title race at the beginning of the season, City are the only club to rival the money spent, the man in charge and fan’s expectations of United. And before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge the injury to Paul Pogba as a minor factor. An injury to Kevin de Bruyne would also leave a hole in Guardiola’s plans. However, Jose, you spent £200+ million, so I don’t accept injury complaints.
The philosophies of Mourinho and Guardiola have always been contrasting, and never more so than on October 14th. The day Mourinho drew 0-0 against the team City hit for 5, whilst Guardiola’s side put seven past Stoke’s traditionally stubborn back line.
Both coaches had a year to implement their ideas and train their teams. Both had huge sums of money to invest in the players they needed. Last season they both faltered as Chelsea’s unrivalled consistency led them to the title. Even when City seemed to lose their way, with the 4-0 hammering away to Everton sticking in my memory, Mourinho’s cautious approach could never capitalise on dropped points, and they ended the season with one loss fewer than their rivals, but more importantly 26 goals, 9 points and three places lower.
Despite having the best goalkeeper in the world and one of the top defences in the league, Mourinho still insisted on playing through Fellaini and restricting the game time of several magical forward players. A brief vindication in Europa League success only emphasises the false sense of security around Old Trafford.
Since Ferguson left, the managers have all had an overbearing defensive approach, and as United dug their heels in at Anfield, you could feel the weight descending on the shoulders of the players.
A significant contrast between Pep and Mourinho is the way in which they set out to achieve control in a match. Both record high levels of possession, but the focus remains on attacking or defending, respectively. This is clear in the way Pep frequently defended a rocky CB partnership of Stones and Otamendi by instead slating the attack that ended with the third-highest goal tally at the end of the season.
On the other side, Mourinho cut Henrik Mhikitaryan and Anthony Martial from the team, consigned Juan Mata to the bench, and often played five at the back, stifling any attacking confidence. I am sure Pep would play them from the off, rotating them with more experienced players. His attacking mentality and confidence that his team would score, would allow for inexperienced and the defensive risks of playing young players.
The beginning of the 2017/2018 season showed how dangerous Mhikitaryan, Martial and Rashford could be around Romelu Lukaku, and yet the same old story returned against Anfield, continuing into the lacklustre performance against Benfica, and an embarrassing performance against a sensational Huddersfield Town pressing game, which Jose at least had enough humility to acknowledge post-match.
The way Mourinho prioritises defensive, destructive players has been shown up crystal clear alongside Pep’s ferris wheel of sublime attacking flair. Mourinho’s trust in defensive players is itself destructive, and cracks are beginning to show.
Phil Neville’s MOTD analysis highlighted a particular passage of play against Huddersfield Town summing up United’s performance, in which 7 or 8 players attempting to bring the ball under control, with Antonio Valencia, one of United’s most consistent, calm customers over the years, committing a foul.
The energy and commitment of Huddersfield’s players from the off was an incredible turnaround from an absent performance in their 2-0 loss to Swansea. In spite of this, top class players like Matic, Herrera and Mata who were passing rings around teams before the international break should be able to remain composed in that instance. Mourinho reacted badly to Ander Herrera’s comments, who concluded United lacked the passion to get the three points. Is it a coincidence they lack passion when they’ve had their momentum severed by negative tactics?
Formation falling flat
I have already mentioned Mourinho’s five-man defence against Liverpool, and this was the first step towards stifling United’s attacking momentum. With an unnecessary extra CB on the field, United were unable to breach the pressing game of Liverpool’s midfield and attack, hardly ever making it through to put pressure on an unreliable defence.
Moving into midweek and Benfica came with similar intensity to put pressure on United’s return to a four-man defence, and it was only a freak goalkeeping accident that ensured Marcus Rashford’s quick thinking spared his team’s blushes against a side pegged back in fifth in the Portuguese league.
Come Saturday and Huddersfield Town looked like a chance to open the floodgates once more. They had not scored in 600 minutes prior to kick-off, their last win coming in the League Cup in August against Rotherham United.
But in a sense, the damage was done. The team lacked confidence, poise and passion, and were run off the park by a magnificent newly-promoted side, who now sit handsomely in eleventh.
Mourinho returned to the 4-2-3-1 that is fast becoming a tactical past-time in the upper echelons of the football elite. With the sometime exception of Tottenham Hotspur, teams playing four at the back are rarely sitting two midfielders in front of the defence. Henderson at Liverpool, Casemiro at Madrid, Allan at Napoli, Motta at PSG.
Whilst Herrera does not occupy as defensive a role as Matic, the rigidity of Mourinho’s setup seems unnecessarily cautious for a team with such a top class defence. The once derided City defence of Stones and Otamendi have only Fernandinho in front of them, and as a result City have six if not seven attacking players on the pitch at one time, when against Liverpool you could argue United had as little as three – Lukaku, Rashford and Mhikitaryan.
The formation alone is not enough to cause such a falter in form, as Mourinho’s favoured 4-2-3-1 was still used earlier in the season. However, with Herrera’s natural defensive tenacity compared to Paul Pogba’s hunger to join and create the attack, combined with Mourinho’s naturally defensive style, there is a mindset that has killed United’s momentum, causing the kind of hapless episodes Phil Neville analysed on Saturday night.
The sudden shift to a defensive approach against Liverpool will have rekindled the slow approach to attack United had last season, causing indirection and an unclear gameplan in the final third. Against Huddersfield Town, United had 78%, the same amount Manchester City had against Burnley on the same day, winning 3-0. Whilst it wasn’t their most dazzling display of the season, City remained fluid and in control.
A control that had direction to their play, much of it feeding through de Bruyne and Silva. There is a definitive route from defence to attack through their partnership, and an ability to rotate in the midfield to create space and attacking momentum.
In contrast, since the international break, United have looked lost at times, unsure whether Mhikitaryan is a winger or a no.10, whether Rashford is a winger or a striker, and whether Mata should play centrally or further wide, which incidentally leaves the 4-2-3-1 looking rather lop-sided and vulnerable.
Against Huddersfield, the Red Devils looked visibly shaken. Both goals came from nervous moments under pressure. Particularly for the first goal, when Juan Mata had come so deep to try and receive the ball and create, that he had slipped behind Nemanja Matic and thus succumbed to a rapid press from Aaron Mooy who subsequently finished the move off with a well-deserved goal.
There is no denying Juan Mata shouldn’t have lost the ball so easily and Victor Lindelof, another player Mourinho has shown no trust in, should have dealt with a simple goal-kick to prevent the second goal. However, these are the same players who scored 3 goals or more in five of their seven September fixtures, and it is the drastic tactical changes at Liverpool by Jose Mourinho that has slid United back to the stodgy style of attack as United racked up 15 draws last season to Manchester City’s 9 (and Arsenal’s 6!).
The first test
In recent times, the rigidity of formation has loosened extensively under the tutelage of managers like Guardiola, Klopp and Zidane, preferring to adopt a more holistic approach that extends back to the great Ajax and Barcelona sides of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff.
Not since Mourinho battled and bruised through to the treble in 2010 has such a defensive side – even with the frightening attacking promise of Inter that season – won the Champions League. And I believe this will continue as long as the top European teams are coached in such a way.
Comparing three matches within the context of a long season to the overall direction of football tactics may seem exaggerated and reactionary. However, the drop in form is part of a much wider pattern, and I believe Mourinho’s tactics at Anfield resurfaced an unsustainable style of play in this era, not least because the noisy neighbours running riot at the Etihad are mounting pressure on the Portuguese manager, affirming an increasingly successful tactical trend in European football.
There has undoubtedly been great improvements to the performances of last season, but this blip offers Mourinho and Manchester United their first real test this season. Unless Mourinho breaks the shackles from a stunning attacking line-up, it is hard to see how United will rival a City team intent on a journey to footballing perfection – which of course couldn’t possibly exist.