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1. Familiarity Doesn’t Breed Contempt
I can’t be on my own in saying I don’t like change. If I buy a new pair of jeans, it takes several outings until they just feel right. When you first put them on they don’t fit like your all-time favourites, and you want your old, tatty, well-worn pair back again. You relied on them nearly every day, they were your go to outfit. They never let you down, you could wear them anywhere and they lasted for so long. But eventually the day came I had to let them go to pursue other interests like their horses. Sorry, I’ve got confused in my analogy. My point being that you get new jeans, and after a few uncomfortable outings, and trying a few different belt and t-shirt options, you come to accept and rely on them just like that old cherished pair.
At the start of this season, that’s how I’m starting to feel about Jose Mourinho. I think he probably feels the same way. It feels like he’s reverted to classic Mourinho, ‘second season’ Mourinho. As is often referred to in the media, it has traditionally taken a season for him to make his mark at a club and solidify things, before kicking on and achieving league success in his second year.
After the first three games of the season, early days though it is, this year just feels different than last. Of course, quite rightly, Mourinho himself is preaching caution: “I’m not getting carried away…. Nine points after three matches is nothing different for us because we did that last season”. Now though, this is his squad, and they are his players. Those close to the players speak of a sense of harmony and unity that has taken time for him to build after it was completely shattered under the doomed reigns of the calamitous David Moyes and the drudgery of Louis Van Gaal.
The players trust Mourinho who seems to have re-discovered his mischievous swagger that I was worried he’d lost half way through last season. There was a stage prior to Christmas he seemed to have lost any love for the game – who knows what the reality was. Whatever happened last year, the foundations appear to have been laid for a much more stable playing staff this year. His recruitment has been solid. If you consider his signings – Eric Bailly, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku, and now Zlatan re-signed – all are crucial members of this team, with Victor Lindelof to be slowly integrated. All are powerful, athletic players who characterise what he wants from his team.
2. Consistency is key
But for Martial coming in for Marcus Rashford following his excellent cameo appearances, United have named the same side for each of the opening three league games of the season. This is in stark contrast again to last season, when the side featured more bizarre and confusing changes than a Lady Gaga concert.
Consider the last few Premiership title winning sides: Manchester City, Chelsea, and Leicester City themselves. You could name their strongest starting eleven, and the teams were rotated only as necessary. Granted, a recurring theme of sides challenging for the title has been that they have not been competing in Europe; however, it demonstrates that the need for understanding and cohesion in the teams are crucial. If the back four and midfield are constantly changing, and the balance is shifting, it is understandable that a team can lack fluidity and look disjointed. This consistency of selection is much more like Mourinho, and hopefully can provide a template for a successful season. This side seems to have complementary elements: Jones and Bailly have struck up a partnership, Matic has offered Pogba greater freedom, Mkhitaryan in a central role gives pace, and the option of dove-tailing with Juan Mata, and Lukaku provides genuine pace and power to occupy defences.
Of course, a strong squad is also crucial for obvious reasons. United will have a large number of games and rotation is vital in order to try and compete on all fronts. Look across the top sides in Europe, though, and you can name their strongest starting sides but for maybe one or two tightly contested positions. It is a tough balance keeping players happy and involved, which is why a harmonious team spirit and feeling of togetherness is mandatory. After the Leicester game, United’s manager said “It doesn’t matter if they play from the beginning or from the bench. The group is solid, very, very friendly in between games and great empathy”. At present, this looks good for United, although the challenge of maintaining this increases as the season progresses.
3. Mourinho is influencing games
Another familiar trait of Mourinho that is evident in its return is his ability to influence games from the side line. He has shown in the past he can be ruthless in making changes as and when he feels necessary. He has dragged players off before half time at Chelsea, and subbed on and quickly subbed off Nemanja Matic in the same half during his tenure there.
Saturday’s goal scorers, Marcus Rashford and Marouane Fellaini, were both second half substitutes, and the other player introduced from the bench, Jesse Lingard, provided the assist for the second goal. Substitutes have scored in each of the league games this season, which is more than a happy coincidence.
Watch during the next game, and you’ll likely see Mourinho waiting for his opposing manager make a change before he makes his own. He waited for Craig Shakespeare to make his changes first with the score at 0-0, with Demarai Gray and Andy King replacing Marc Albrighton and Shinji Okazaki. United then introduced Rashford and Fellaini, and adapted their approach. This introduced a fresh impetus, and two goals quickly followed after what had been a frustrating afternoon. Plenty of chances had been created, United amassed 22 shots on goal and enjoyed 69% of possession. It was the sort of game that would have finished 0-0 last season after following a similar pattern. However, no doubt motivated by his exclusion from the side, and able to capitalise on a rare defensive error at a set piece, and Rashford was able to give United the lead that they then did not look like surrendering.
4. Mourinho has a plan
Mourinho couldn’t resist a veiled post-match dig at the much-derided Arsene Wenger. Ten years ago, when Arsenal were last a decent team, his sides used to dominate to the extent where he didn’t worry about the opposition. His players were so good, he could just let them go out and play like the Harlem Globetrotters, with little more instruction than to enjoy themselves. They dominated possession to the extent that they nullified the threat of their opponents. Unfortunately, Professor Yaffle still doesn’t make a plan for different opponents, despite replacing Campbell, Vieira, and Henry with Rob Holding, Mohammed Elneny, and Olivier Giroud.
Speaking after the victory against Leicester, Mourinho opined “Were Leicester very dangerous against Arsenal (in the opening game of the season)? Yes, they were, I watched the match three times. Were they today? No, because of us”. He has remarked in the past, and again here, that Jamie Vardy is one of the most effective counter attacking players in the division. On Saturday, United maintained almost constant control throughout the game. What was crucial, though, is that the shape of the team at the back was not caught out of position or over-committing forward. At times, the cautious approach of Mourinho can be frustrating, but he is obsessed with countering the threat of his opponents, and more often than not he gets it right. Vardy thrives off balls over the top to which he can run on to. He was kept quiet by a lack of service, and a disciplined performance from the increasingly formidable Jones and Bailly, who both have pace and strength. One perfect example came late in the game when a ball was hit long for Vardy to chase. Bailly had given himself a few yards head start, and retreating towards his own goal, was able to shrug Vardy off and turn with the ball to play a simple pass to a team mate.
The three league performances to date have allowed United to dominate and be aware of the need to counter the threat of inferior opponents. Mourinho went on to say, “We are playing well, probably in some matches where we are not playing well probably we are going to be defensive and if in some matches the opponent is playing better than us we have to be pragmatic and realistic and defend”. This is nothing new for a Mourinho team, and he certainly proved beyond any doubt last season that the performance is secondary to the result. Other sides have a fixed philosophy to be applied rigidly at all times; Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Bournemouth to name a few. Mourinho has a plan depending on who he faces. Sometimes it won’t make for pleasurable viewing. Providing it brings results and trophies, the fact is he will face few complaints. This side may lack an abundance of finesse, but offers plenty of pace and swift, incisive attacking play. In the games where Mourinho doesn’t ‘park the bus’, this can provide a good level of entertainment similar to the sides Ferguson produced in the 90’s.
5. Penalty Problems
It doesn’t seem to matter now, but the penalty miss from Romelu Lukaku after an hour felt like it may have been the key moment in the game as United pressed but the ball wouldn’t find its way into the net of a resolute Leicester defence, with the ever-reliable Kasper Schmeichel in imperious form.
Like any striker I don’t imagine Lukaku will want to give up his role as primary penalty taker, however he has missed 2 of his last 3 in the league. Anyone can miss a penalty, but in years gone by at Old Trafford it was a rare thing. Denis Irwin, Eric Cantona, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo each had a conversion rate in excess of 80% in their periods at the club. That rate has endured a slump in more recent years, with departed club legend Wayne Rooney managing only 65%. There isn’t a recognised penalty king at the club currently, but despite Lukaku’s many fine qualities, he is not someone who fills me with confidence when placing the ball on the spot. Only a minor point, but of those on the pitch, I’d have more confidence in Mata, Pogba or Daley Blind.
Concluding, it’s hard not to get carried away after such a comprehensive opening to the campaign. Early signs are good, but we have seen what happened last season to both United and their City neighbours. With the international break now upon us, it will be key to capture the same momentum and feeling of optimism when the side next takes the field against Stoke at a wet and windy Britannia Stadium on 9th September.