Whisper it but the outlook is a lot rosier for José Mourinho and his Manchester United side. The Reds have embarked on a seven game winning streak delivering different types of victories in the process… but victories nonetheless.
In United’s win against Sunderland, for example, Old Trafford was treated to an element of fantasy football, capped off with Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s outrageous scorpion kick; the game against Middlesbrough bore witness to a stirring comeback not seen since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, while at the London Stadium United ground out a 2-0 victory on Monday night.
The progression that was evident during a spate of draws in the autumn is now bearing fruit in terms of results, as Mourinho’s de-Van Gaal-ing of United gathers steam. Of course, supporters’ positivity still needs to be balanced out by a sense of realism as United remain in sixth in the league, but nonetheless the team is now unquestionably in a better position to challenge for a top four spot.
The cause of United’s upward mobility? A large part of the trend is down to Mourinho tackling a whole range of niggling issues and deftly coming up with answers to the big questions asked of him. The result is a list of achievements that bode well for United as the team enters the New Year.
The Wayne Rooney Conundrum
There was a time when leaving out Wayne Rooney would have raised an endless list of questions regardless of how well the United captain was performing. It is to the United manager’s credit that he’s managed the situation with a minimum amount of fuss. Today, the Scouser’s exclusion, when fit, is not discussed with any fanfare.
When Mourinho first took up the job at Old Trafford he insisted that Rooney would operate as a striker and gave the number 10 a chance to stake his claim. Rooney failed to present a convincing case and such was his public decline the only sensible decision was to take him out of the firing line. There have been important contributions – setting up the winner against Hull comes to mind – but overall there’s nothing to suggest that Rooney’s old spark will ever return.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Mourinho has ensured that the club’s joint record goal scorer hasn’t felt ostracized. Ibrahimović and Pogba have taken the limelight, enabling the United captain to focus on his football with some encouraging performances.[/blockquote]
Despite withdrawing Rooney from a frontline role Mourinho has ensured that the club’s joint record goal scorer hasn’t felt ostracized. The pressure is somewhat off Rooney as Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba have taken the limelight away, enabling the United captain to focus on his football an, indeed, there have been some encouraging cameo performances.
Mourinho’s response to the controversy surrounding Rooney’s impromptu tipple while on England duty was to protect his player and question the 31-year-old’s treatment by the FA. It would have been easy to hang Rooney out to dry, but Mourinho opted to back his waning star’s corner. Gestures like that do go a long way.
José has effectively diffused the Rooney question, which is no mean feat. Now seeing the striker on the bench provokes nothing more than an afterthought – the true demonstration of how skillfully Mourinho has managed this potentially sticky situation.
Under Mourinho’s watch United has signed Eric Bailly, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimović, and Pogba. It goes without saying they have all been hits, albeit to different degrees. The Portuguese manager may have benefitted from Ed Woodward learning some hard lessons in previous windows, but it cannot escape the attention that last summer’s player recruitment was focused and efficient.
The scattergun policy under Louis van Gaal and David Moyes appears to be behind United. Mourinho knows exactly what he wants in the market and as a result an element of stability has been established. Granted, not all future transfers will be hits, but at the very least Mourinho has demonstrated that he can help facilitate big deals while minimizing risky purchases. Future windows can be looked upon with a sense of expectation rather than dread.
Remember when Juan Mata was subbed on and then off again in the Community Shield? There was a storm in a tea cup surrounding that particular move, with some mischievous reporters claiming that Mata was angry at Mourinho. Nothing of the sort.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Mata’s imminent departure was assumed with Mourinho’s arrival, but the Spaniard has been an important member of United’s squad. He provides a sense of guile that few others in the squad possess.[/blockquote]
Mata’s imminent departure was assumed with Mourinho’s arrival, but the Spaniard has been an important member of United’s squad and has notched up four league goals, including United’s first of the Mourinho era, as well as two assists. In all competitions the Spaniard has found the net six times and, though he hasn’t finished a game under José’s watch, Mata provides a element of guile that few others in the squad possess.
Perhaps Mourinho had a change of heart, maybe he’s being the arch pragmatist, but the United boss recognizes that this squad needs Mata’s cunning. It’s clear that the pair share common ground.
The De-Van Gaalification of Old Trafford
There’s a stat going around showing the number of shots United has taken under Mourinho compared with Van Gaal. Mourinho admitted that it would have been easier to work with an entirely new group of players and not deprogram the squad that he inherited from the Dutchman.
Slowly but surely the squad has come around to Mourinho’s style of football if the shots stats are anything to go by, with United managing 74 shots in 10 games at home thus far compared with 75 in the whole of last season. The style, to use football parlance, is more vertical and play has been more dynamic as a result. The team has scored 31 goals in 20 games this campaign compared to the 24 in the same number of matches last season. It may be a while before we see another 44-pass goal.
The resurrections of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo
Hands up who thought Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo would be United’s first choice centre-back pairing? It’s a resurrection of Lazarus proportions, but ever since his return against Swansea City in November Jones has been an ever-present member of the first team. That the Englishman was rested against Middlesbrough shows how far he has come. More encouraging though is that Jones has been able to string together a run of games. Earlier this season, this site posited that for Jones to return to the fold he would need “an extended period of clean health to rebuild his career at Old Trafford – and he must hope that the other players competing for his position suffer a dip in form or a long-term injury.” Finally, the luckless number 4 has enjoyed the rub of the green. He’s seizing the opportunity.
Marcos Rojo has been an unexpected hit too, though it must be noted that he was fortunate not to see red against Crystal Palace and Everton. Once lampooned, the player is now a lynchpin of United’s backline and performing very well. The Argentinean is benefitting from José’s preference of playing stoppers and not ball playing center-backs and the general instruction to get the ball forward quicker.
The team is yet to lose whenever Rojo and Jones have started together, a remarkable statistic all things considered, and it’s a testament to Mourinho’s coaching ability that he has raised the performance and fitness levels of the duo to such a degree that it’s now almost taken for granted that they are United’s first choice defensive partnership.
Ander Herrera’s transformation
The former Athletic Bilbao player is now one of the first names on the list when José selects his team. It’s quite the turnaround given Van Gaal’s distrust of the Spaniard. Herrera’s commitment to all things United quickly made him popular with the fans, but the Spaniard is now doing his talking on the pitch too.
In a sense it’s not difficult to see why Mourinho would take a liking to the midfielder. Herrea is a feisty presence ready to snap into tackles while spliting defences with surgically precise passes. The level of discipline that he has added has ensured that he’s worthy of a starting spot. José dished out his advice and found an eager student.
Mourinho has inflicted some wounds on his team as well. One of them was to ignore Michael Carrick’s claim for a starting spot early in the campaign. It’s no coincidence that United’s form has picked up with the metronomic midfielder’s return. The 35-year old needs to be handled with care given his advanced age, but Mourinho gains credit for recognizing an error of judgement and bringing the Geordie back into the line-up. Pogba has been freed up as a result, and the world-record signing has gone on from strength to strength in his natural position.
Similarly, United started off the season playing a stultifying 4-2-3-1 – a remnant from Van Gaal’s era – and the formation didn’t get the best out of United’s key players, especially Pogba. Initially, it looked like Mourinho was looking for the players to fit into his system, but as the season has progressed a gradual shift to 4-3-3 has brought the best out of the talent available.
The aggregation of marginal gains
Mourinho’s reign has not been a whirlwind revolution. If anything it’s an evolution with aggregated gains building up to improve United’s fortunes.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Small improvements are making a difference. It remains to be seen if this run can continue, but with each victory comes further proof that Mourinho is taking United in the right direction.[/blockquote]
That said it has been a bumpy road for the United boss. Mourinho hastily isolated Bastian Schweinsteiger, even if rumours suggest it was at the squad’s behest, and looks to have a rocky relationship with Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw. Perhaps most tellingly, Mourinho initially struggled to recapture his mojo after the spectacular demise at Chelsea. Yet, if Mourinho’s recent tactical substitutions are anything to go by, the Portuguese coach may have got his groove back.
But it is the little improvements that are starting to make a difference. It remains to be seen if this run can continue, but with each victory comes further proof that Mourinho is taking United in the right direction.
12 thoughts on “The Mourinho Evolution”
true description of the season so far!
Amen to all of it; JM’s doing a great job & EW can start, at last, to breathe a little easier
While it would be churlish to quibble with the overall thrust of this article – with which I am largely in agreement – there is one point about which I beg to differ:
“The style, to use football parlance, is more vertical and play has been more dynamic”.
In many of the matches, this point is simply not true. Take yesterday’s match against West Ham – the first half was appalling, slow and almost LvG-ish in regard to the sideways/backwards passing.
It was only when Juan Mata and, especially, Marcus Rashford were brought on that the tempo was increased and, there was a real penetrative thrust to the attack. Before those changes, the match was played along the edge of West Ham’s penalty box with no one running at the defenders.
When they did run at the defenders – shock ? – there were dividends: first, the run-of-play that resulted in the KeystoneKops’ comedy in which both Valencia and Lingard somehow conspired to miss an open goal from about three yards and, then, second, when Marcus Rashford turned the right back inside-out and was able to pass the ball to Juan Mata who surgically drilled it into the far side of the net.
For too many of the matches, UTD have had what I would call “empty possession” and it stems, I think, from an unwillingness to give licence to the speedy attacking players (Mhkitaryan, Martial, and Rashford) to run at the defenders and create “twisted blood” in them.
If Jo$e can let this team play at a faster tempo with more “at ’em” running then I think really good things will happen.
On a cheerier note – TheArse dropped two points today and if CSKALondon can beat Spurs tomorrow then the gap between sixth and second will only be a couple of points. Who’d have imagined that this would have happened ? Who’d have imagined that I’d be watching in the hope that Chelsea win ?
The facts indicate that their style of attack has improved significantly under Mou. They have as many shots on goal thru this point of the season as they had ALL OF LAST YEAR!
Agree regarding ’empty possesion’ i thought at the time of the ludicrous red card Jose should have changed it ( which he did at h/t) but is that the plan to wear down the opposistion? Dont know.
Middleboro was sought of similar till they up the anti once again big style late on and looked like the old days .
A massive improvement they look the best side /solid in the league at the moment to me .
Like other Reds I am enjoying the Xmas/New Year points fest, but with just a hint of frustration. Having twice watched Mhkitaryan in United’s pre-season playing very similarly to how he has been doing for the last month or so, his absence during the frustrating draws at home sequence, is still perplexing.
Mourinho has spoken about ‘adjustment’ and even ‘attitude’ and whilst there may be some sort of ‘truth’ in those comments, I cannot help but feel that deliberately sidelining Mhkitaryan for much of the Autumn has cost United dearly in the battle for top spot.
The article is spot on about the kinds of wins we are seeing under Jose. Players were evidently tired in the game against West Ham and even Jose admitted that if they had scored we wouldn’t have won the game. Having said that, mark of all good teams and not just Jose’s is that they grind out such results even when not playing convincing football. Never in my dreams i could have imagined us with a comeback under LVG because he was so headstrong in his adjustments to the needs of each game. With Arsenal and Liverpool dropping points the second spot is clearly up for grabs. Jose’s knows all these wins will be soon forgotten if he fails to capitalize in match against Liverpool, for that, will be a true test of this resurgent United side. Until then, like The Wolf in Pulp Fiction said – Let’s not start sucking each other’s d**ks just yet.
Just looking at that 44 pass goal on YouTube made me appreciate this season even more- 2 steps forward 3 back, rinse and repeat..
Well, i dnt mean to spoil d party 4 u guys but i must draw ur attention to one fact which has been neglected. The fact that United was doin well bfor d Europa league, and d fact dat United were strugglin durin d Europa League n also d fact dat United has somehow click since d conclusion of Europa league group stages. I can vividly remember dat United won three of their first four games of d season, and then d Europa kicks off n United struggles also kick off, now d Europa league group stage has ended n United clicks. I hope u can also remember d games against Watford,Stoke city,Liverpool (to mention few), dis games are some of d games we played after d thursday days exorsion n we ended up nt doin well in dose games. NOW, my point is that Febuary is around d corner n United will start playin on Thursdays again, will d struggle return? I hope dats not d case. But My advice is dat Jose shud play completely different XI on Thursdays wen Febuary comes around, even it means playing Youngsters. The Europa is completely meaninless, lets face d league n finish strongly. What do u think?
spot on. especially on Jones & Rojo. well done!
I’m really happy for the turn of events because I’m one of the guys who put my neck on the line for Mou’s appointment in my grp. When things were slow in building up, it was not an easy time but thanks to Mou and the team for paying for the trust we reposed in them.
I wonder how much Fergie’s presence at Carrington has conributed? Jose certainly gets what it means to be a United manager. He subbed off a defender for a forward against Boro – something Fergie would often do to get a win.