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1) This was a record-setting third home draw in a row
The draw with Arsenal on Saturday felt like a defeat. It had felt like the much-needed three points were in the bag. Arsenal hadn’t as much as troubled David De Gea, until in the 89th minute Olivier Giroud rose and delivered what felt like a disastrous blow. The result isn’t a disaster in the grand scheme of things; before the game some fans might even have accepted a draw. Arsenal have been playing well and have an abundance of talent in attack. The sense of gross dissatisfaction was due to the fact that Manchester United were completely dominant, but still failed to make the points safe.
When I’m disappointed with a United display, I often think to myself “What will Juan Mata be thinking?”. Anyone who follows him on social media will know that he’s an articulate and balanced individual, who borders on philosophical, and also happens to be a gifted footballer who I feel privileged to watch… sorry, I lost myself for a moment there. Following the game, he tweeted ‘A very frustrating outcome… but we remain positive after the way we played. Atmosphere at Old Trafford incredible once again’. Michael Carrick echoed those sentiments in his post-match interview, saying “I don’t really see the problems we need to solve. I think, of course, the results aren’t ideal and that’s the major thing, but playing like that more often than not we are going to win games”. Both enforcing the positive whilst acknowledging the disappointment.
This is true, the three home performances that have ended in draws have all been decent outings from Mourinho’s team. There have been enough chances in those games to win ten matches, let alone three. But the fact remains they have accumulated three points when they needed nine.
I said after the Stoke draw that you get days like that. It happened under Fergie, and it happens to any side, the great ones and the poor alike. What I also said was it’s not a problem providing it’s the exception, and not the theme. To me, with these three results, it has become a theme. Of course, there are positives, and I believe the league situation will improve between now and the end of the season, but a killer instinct is needed to bring about a march up the table. Home form will be tremendously important, and for it to improve, the chances must be taken. Players and the management can make all the right noises about performance levels, but United have a problem putting the ball in the net and that needs to improve.
2) United are not ‘the unluckiest team in the Premier League’
This was Mourinho’s post-match claim, and I must say what he has been saying in the media concerns me more than what we are seeing on the pitch. We knew what we were getting with Mourinho, and whilst he has earned the right to be labelled the world’s most successful manager, at times I am genuinely embarrassed listening to him.
We have inherited the snarling, snappy and miserable Mourinho that left his title-winning Chelsea side in tatters. United not winning on Saturday was not unlucky; undeserved yes, but not unlucky. I don’t believe in luck. Of course, you get moments where a decision goes against you, but later in the season it will go for you. You might concede a freak goal in a game, but you’ll score a freak goal in another. The players are right that the performance was good, but ultimately, they only put away one of their chances. That is one reason they didn’t win.
Another reason, and this isn’t just with hindsight, is that Mourinho settled for 1-0. He brought off arguably his brightest attacking player in Mata for Morgan Schneiderlin, in a late effort to shore things up. He gave the initiative to Arsenal, when United had controlled the game all day. I just can’t understand the reasoning, but it is typical Mourinho. In fairness, it has brought him huge success over the years, his first thought is pragmatism. But why concede the initiative? The last few minutes United invited pressure from Arsenal when by all rights they should have been seeking a second goal to kill the game off. Arsenal were vulnerable, they hadn’t played well, and Mourinho offered them a route back. Yet he takes no responsibility for his own error.
I’m already tired of the constant deflection citing bad luck, bad referees, criticising his own players publicly, and complaining people judge him too harshly because he has always won things. I know Ferguson could be bullish and certainly exerted pressure on officials, the media and his own players. The difference, though, is that he was a master psychologist. Every snipe he took in public was with purpose, it was calculated. I don’t recall him ever criticising an individual player while they were a part of his team. Mourinho though, has made much-publicised criticism of his players, Luke Shaw probably the prime example, and I struggle to comprehend what positive outcome this can create. He has also cast aside numerous players: Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Schneiderlin, whilst under-utilising or mis-using other fine players like Michael Carrick and Marcus Rashford. That is a hugely costly, let alone talented, collection of players, and the attitude is indicative of the prevailing mis-management at the club over the last few years. It is hugely wasteful, and compares unfavourably with other well-run and high-performing teams in the division. It has been widely reported that Mourinho is over-seeing a root and branch restructuring of the entire club. There is no doubt that changes to the youth and scouting set ups would be beneficial, but an overhaul of the playing staff is also on the agenda. I firmly believe that the talent and strength in-depth is already there. What is needed is the squad to be moulded into a team with proper structure, and hopefully in time a winning mentality.
3) Mourinho got the team selection right
I’ll start by nit-picking, and it’s not that he did anything wrong against Arsenal, but since Mourinho is fond of banishing players from the first team picture, Marcos Rojo should be his next victim. That aside, I was delighted when I saw the starting line up to face Arsenal. I think the side that started the game had a good balance with the fluid 4-3-3 system that was adopted, and I think it should offer a template for moving forward.
Adding Michael Carrick into the side benefits everyone through his calm assurance and proficient use of the ball, but none more so than Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera. Both Herrera and Pogba are at their best if allowed to roam with freedom, and Carrick’s positional discipline affords them that freedom.
The front three of Martial, Rashford and Mata is exciting. It offers pace and cunning, and the ability to swap wide and central positions, forcing defenders to be dragged all over the place. The unavailability of Zlatan enabled this trio to be trialled, and I think there is a strong case for retaining this side in the next Premier League outing against West Ham. Ibrahimovic looked back to decent form against Swansea, and has outstanding attributes, but I think his games should be managed in the same way Carrick is, and Giggs and Scholes were in years gone by.
The system suits the personnel, and if it helps to get the best out of the world’s most expensive player it will make United a fiercer proposition. My slight worry is that Fellaini would have featured if he was available, which would break up a lot of that fluidity – in fact Mourinho said as much post-match when he bemoaned that the towering Belgian wasn’t available to help defend against Giroud’s equaliser at the back post. Time will tell, but I think Mourinho has stumbled across a promising combination.
4) Antonio Valencia makes a difference
He’s a player I derided under the stewardship of Louis Van Gaal, but this season Valencia has been tremendous in his right back role, and it was good to see him back in the side on Saturday. He has defensive frailties, but he offers so much going forward. He offers pace, strength and penetration, and provides a width which the team lacks when he is absent, especially with Mata playing on the right. He caused Arsenal big problems, and should have had a penalty when Monreal brought him down in the box.
He forced many an involuntary groan over the last couple of seasons when he made a promising burst down the right wing, only to cut back and play a safe but limp ball inside. Thankfully, this appears to have been by instruction as opposed to his own free will. His final ball was always inevitably drilled hard and low into the feet of the first defender, and he generally looked like a spent force.
Under Mourinho, he has been rejuvenated, and has offered a tremendous outlet on United’s right side. He has little subtlety to his approach, but has almost unrivalled athleticism and is thankfully back to his more effective, direct play. His delivery has improved and is more varied, and his defensive work is improving. He was out-jumped at the back post for the goal, but the damage was done before that by Marcus Rashford’s mannequin challenge enabling Oxlade-Chamberlain’s perfect cross.
5) Manchester United are improving under Mourinho
I’ll qualify that headline – I firmly believe that with the money spent and the personnel available, United should be doing better, and at the very least competing in and around the top of the table. There is depth in every position and several genuinely top-level players in defence, midfield and attack. Therefore, drastic further improvement is necessary.
You just don’t know what you are going to get from game to game; there have been excellent performances and I would count Saturday as one of them; but there have also been shambolic performances against Watford, Chelsea, and away in the Europa League. That is the baffling, and somewhat concerning thing, as you would not associate Mourinho with a shambles.
However, overall, things have improved. Statistically, David Moyes had more points after 12 league games, as did Van Gaal. However, in terms of performance level, this side have improved. United are creating chances, and bar the blips (let’s hope they are blips), have been fairly sound defensively. I have frustrations with the club, and frustrations with Mourinho, but I do think that success will be achieved in at least the medium-term future, and I think there will be a big improvement in terms of points at home and performances away in the second half of the season.
People love to see United falter and fail, which is why reactions to minor setbacks are exacerbated and gleefully rubbed in. The fact remains that like or loathe his methods and his character, Mourinho is a career winner, and the odds are that he will continue to win during his time in Manchester. Saturday was the first performance against a ‘big’ team that United have genuinely dominated, and hopefully will not be the last.
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