From the dark days of three consecutive September defeats, to an unbeaten run few thought was possible, Manchester United’s big game manager is in full Mourinho Mode. Unforgiving, unrelenting and, now, unhindered by a rigid philosophy or game-plan, fighting on two fronts to reach next season’s Champions League.
Mourinho’s team has become more fluid, not just in the style of play, but in its ability to change approach from game to game. Victory over Anderlecht in extra-time required a level of composure that United teams have lacked since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. By contrast, Chelsea was about seizing the moment and creating a frenetic tension under which Eden Hazard and Diego Costa folded.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]United’s big game manager is in full Mourinho Mode. Unforgiving, unrelenting and, now, unhindered by a rigid philosophy or game-plan.[/blockquote]
Then, at Turf Moor, Mourinho unleashed his frustrated fringe players on a vulnerable Burnley outfit, while Thursday night’s bore draw against Manchester City was another approach again. In the past month alone the Portuguese has used multiple contrasting approaches, more often than not to good effect.
The football might have been prettier in January and February, but results didn’t materialise. Mourinho’s team risked becoming a running joke, restricted by successive home draws and seemingly permanently fixed in sixth position. In the home fixture against Burnley Tom Heaton and a packed defence thwarted Mourinho’s team despite United taking more than 30 shots, leaving the crowd baying for those ugly wins the way ‘old’ Mourinho used to grind them out. If it came to a choice between entertaining football and points, the pendulum began to swing.
Supporters want both, of course, but now deep into April, with a squad beset by injuries, Mourinho is likely to prioritise results over entertainment. Press Anderlecht into submission, shock Chelsea into silence, obliterate Burnley, stifle City. Four matches in which a result was far more important than the aesthetics.
Mourinho is a rare breed in this respect. Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has rarely changed his system this season, at least not since that early season defeat at Arsenal. Even when Marcos Alonso fell ill in the warm-up at Old Trafford, the Italian declined to alter his now familiar 3-4-3, choosing instead to shoe-horn Cesar Azpilicueta into a left wing-back berth. It took the player out of his comfort zone and impacted Chelsea’s approach. During the game the Italian manager appeared to have no answer to Mourinho’s surprise tactics.
Meanwhile, at Liverpool Jurgen Klopp is supposedly as malleable as any manager in Europe, yet rarely strays from his preferred 4-3-3, complete with false nine and narrow forwards. The German has barely changed it up, even when Liverpool failed to break down resolute sides such as Crystal Palace and Swansea City and his team could have used an alternate approach.
In North London it has taken Arsene Wenger 21 years to deploy a back three, and even that the move was a last resort when everything else had failed; a system designed to muffle the venom emanating from the ranks of Arsenal Fan TV. So desperate was Wenger that he deployed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a makeshift right wing-back.
In modern times it was arguably Mourinho that made the 4-2-3-1 system the archetype European formation: from Chelsea, to Inter Milan, to Real Madrid, the system became the manager’s go to approach. Two defensive midfielders that sit, one central player bursting forward, and two speedy wingers feeding a target man.
During the early part of the season, when the system failed at United, the manager was accused of being ,”arrogant” or “strong willed,” and even “headstrong” in not more quickly changing his approach. In the intervening months, Mourinho has deployed three, four, five – and even six at the back.
Yet, crucially the 4-2-3-1 reappeared against weaker teams such as Anderlecht when an extra forward player was required to dart between the opposition’s banks of four. Often Henrikh Mkhitaryan has taken on that role with relish, or an unshackled Paul Pogba has stepped up to push forward.
When Chelsea arrived at Old Trafford earlier this month Mourinho moved the goalposts once more, despite naming a team that offered little confidence to those present at Old Trafford on Easter Sunday. Mourinho was keen not only to explain his selection, but for the media and supporters alike to note his wisdom.
“I want to say I was convinced even before the cup that controlling the two players that played behind Diego [Costa] – sometimes Hazard, sometimes Hazard-Pedro – controlling the position of these two players, and controlling the full-backs because they go really deep with two wide men, would create them lots of problems,” Mourinho said.
“They are phenomenal in counter-attack, and when they have the ball it’s more difficult for them and when they have the ball we are compact and when they try to play counter-attack we were always in control of these link positions.”
During that match Ander Herrera rightly won plaudits for his man-marking job on Eden Hazard in a game that was all about controlling a dangerous opponent. Against Anderlecht a few days later the impetus was at United’s door. Change and adapt.
Mourinho’s team is now a shape-shifting outfit, and arguably the Premier League’s most versatile, although Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur is a close competitor. In this the manager is helped by a group of players that are high on flexibility, if low on public perception, including Jesse Lingard, Matteo Darmian, and Daley Blind. Lingard is a microcosm of Mourinho’s tactics, always eager to fulfil whatever duty the manager decides. The 23-year-old made his United first team debut at wing-back, has played as a support striker, central midfielder and on either flank this season.
The improvement of these players, and others, and the willingness to be flexible is evidence of Mourinho’s manta in motion. Mourinho has allowed the team to think freely, uninhibited by any one particular doctrine. The challenge now is to turn that flexibility into consistent results.