I haven’t written anything football related for a number of months for varying reasons I guess. The end of the year tends to have a very “retail clearance sale” feel about it – everyone is chasing some or other deadline. I haven’t written anything specific about Manchester United and took it a step further by inducing a “facebook ban” on myself until such time that I felt like the club was beginning to drag itself back onto the right path.
I was quite bullish around the time Mourinho was confirmed as the successor to Louis van Gaal that his arrival would spell the end of the post Sir Alex Ferguson malaise and I use that word specifically because so much money has been invested in the club they should be doing more with the resources they have than finishing 7th, 4th and 5th .
It all began with the loss to Watford, which was the 3rd loss in a 3 game sequence but more so than the loss to Manchester City or Feyenoord in the Europa League this one was especially difficult to digest as it had all the hallmarks of LVG’s 2 seasons in charge of Manchester United. A man who delivered the clubs first post Fergie trophy was shown the door 2 days after winning the FA CUP purely because his football was so insipid. Stale possession, zero fluency, zero team chemistry, zero accuracy in attack, slow and ponderous build up. To compound matters it just felt like Jose Mourinho was doing a good job at mimicking LVG often sitting in his technical area writing notes on a note pad while Watford put United to the sword (I promise you if Mourinho’s notepad had a clipboard I was probably going to need medical attention). It was greatly concerning that the successful manager of 2014/15 had somehow forgotten how to win. Moyes had failed dismally, LVG also failed to deliver what he had promised upon joining and now a 3rd successive manager post Sir Alex was seemingly failing. It felt like dejavu and another false dawn for Manchester United and its supporter base. Little did I know there would be worse to follow.
Most people would agree that the lowest point in the Mourinho era has to be the 4-0 hiding at Chelsea. That day more than any other day I genuinely felt sorry for Mourinho, one would have hoped that the players would rise for such an occasion but 30 seconds into the game it was 1-0 Chelsea. I would go as far as saying that’s arguably the most embarrassing moment of his coaching career. Some managers would not have come back from that and to compound matters even further one of the signings of the summer, Eric Bailly, up to that point went back to the team bus on crutches and was confirmed injured for at least 6 weeks with a knee ligament problem. Jose’s return to Chelsea turned into a complete nightmare.
Things have improved dramatically over time since that torrid evening in London and here are 5 things that Mourinho has done to turn things around at Manchester United who are now unbeaten in 13 games in all competition, which is significantly also the longest unbeaten sequence Sir Alex retired in May 2013.
1 Found a balanced and regular starting lineup
Manchester United started the season Pogba and Fellaini as an axis with Rooney in his now preferred number 10 role with Ibrahimovic leading the line. Fellaini’s limitations as a footballer aside theres no pace in that lineup especially when Juan Mata plays out wide on the right. This was widely identified as the reason Watford ran riot against United in a 3-1 win. Tactically because of the lack of mobility it also compromised the shape of the team defensively as runners from midfield ran off the back of Pogba and Fellaini unmarked to score the winning goal. It took until November to find the right balance in defense and attack. It was clear from preseason that Jose wanted to play with two central midfielders and three attackers behind a striker but the balance of the two in midfield was proving to be a difficult puzzle to solve and more importantly was the conundrum around where to deploy world record signing Pogba. In hindsight it’s quite startling to think that Carrick made his first EPL start in November as to the naked eye it had become obvious that his control, distribution and experience at the base of the midfield was the key to unleashing Pogba’s talent.
For the first time in nearly a decade Man Utd have a preferred central midfield pairing on paper and on form. Carrick, Herrera, Pogba have been the foundation for the improvement in performance and results.
2 Improve individual and the teams overall ability to defend.
Aside from the Chelsea capitulation, United have defended fairly well as a team this season and it’s one of the areas where Mourinho is highly rates as a manager and I certainly expected improvement. His time as a manager has given rise to the careers of John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, William Gallas and more recently Rafael Varane. The immediate expectation was that a coach with such high standards and expectations of his defenders would get rid of what I like to term as luxury defenders. Jose is the same person who when asked what he thought of the 5-4 London Derby between Spurs and Arsenal responded by suggesting that if he’s team defended like that in training he would send them all home to think about what they’re doing.
In every experts eyes, this meant that Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo were surplus to requirement as the former is never fit and the latter just didn’t defend much really. Rojo didn’t discriminate he was generally skinned by all attackers. Never did anyone think that these two defenders would form the partnership that helps to take the club forward. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’ve improved as individual defenders but as a partnership they’ve overseen a period of 13 games without a loss, without conceding more than 1 goal in any game. This has also helped galvanise the team as again there’s no doubt that collectively United are a tougher team to breakdown with the likes of Ander Herrara snapping into tackles relentlessly.
3 Make Old Trafford A Mini Fortress Again
Under the leadership of Moyes and Louis Van Gaal the common saying had become “teams are no longer afraid of coming to Old Trafford anymore”. This saying like any cliché is founded on the basis of a common truth. In their time as United managers, many teams ended their long sequence of results without wins. This season only Manchester rivals, City, have won at Old Trafford while many other smaller sides have someone left with a point but therein lies the difference as some teams simply didn’t deserve to draw those games. Albeit through their own ineptitude in front of goal, United allowed these teams to come away with points but those draws are now being converted into wins.
Since the Arsenal 1-1 draw United have won 3 out of 3 home games, even managing to turn a frustrating afternoon against Boro into a come from behind morale boosting win after being 1-0 down with 6 minutes to go. Naturally the nostalgia will lead people to say this is the United we all know from 10 years ago. With every sign that the ship is being steered back onto the right path those comparisons with Fergie sides will become nauseating but the signs are that Old Trafford will become a tough place for teams to visit once more, hell the team is even getting some dodgy decisions their way again!
4 Improve the style and quality of play
Many supporters and fans expected a magic wand effect after the arrival of Mourinho, which to be quite frank never quite happened. The announcement and arrival of 4 international players certainly did a lot to change the mood at the club. It felt like a shot of adrenaline and the early results and performances were promising without ever overwhelming. It took a few defeats in October and November to remind us that the job to repair the club was going to take some time and that’s not always forthcoming in the cut and thrust world of international football.
Even during that period of draws where it seemed like everyone associated with the club had forgotten how to win, the quality of the performance was something to hold on to. Without results it’s difficult but I strongly believe most true supporters of the club were just happy we weren’t playing LVG style football that often put you to sleep. There was some excitement and optimism despite losing points from winning positions, players were trying things on the field again and that gave hope that the results are around the corner. 7 wins in a row in all competitions as I write this and it has been excited. As the team starts to gel and understand what the manager is trying to achieve the performances have improved. Combinations are starting to form and none more so than the interplay between Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic the two marquee signings from the summer. I think even those supporters who didn’t want Mourinho are starting to come around to him.
5 Ressurected the special one
This one is a bit controversial however because it’s not tangible but there’s a point in time over the past few months where I started questioning whether Mourinho still has it. I spoke to many people who follow football as religiously as I did and they also felt as though the “game had left him behind” and that the new managers, Conte and Klopp were now the “Mourinho’s” of their generation. Judging by the way that Liverpool and Chelsea have been flying this season it’s hard to argue against that observation. I can speak for many fans of the clubs who regularly visit forums, blogs, match reports, comments sections that after LVG they wanted a manager who patrolled the touchline and argued with the officials to influence 50/50 decisions in our favour again as we enjoyed in the Ferguson era.
It looks very bad on the manager when he causes trouble with officials while his team struggles on the pitch so initially it looked as though we had a poor mans version of the Special One. The team just wasn’t backing up his feistiness off the pitch. Mourinho’s been fined 3 times already by the English FA this season and banned twice for poor behaviour. However during this run of games unbeaten games one has seen the real special one stand up and most importantly his team is backing him up on the field now. Its taken 3 years but it looks like Manchester United have stumbled upon the right man at the helm.
Written by Andile Qokweni – Grit Sport Media