The Season So Far
As Chelsea fans are all-too-aware, José Mourinho has made a career out of manipulating the media to create a siege mentality at his club, and of subsequently using the various media storms he has created to imbue his squads with an unbreakable unity. This unique cocktail of constant controversy and consistent competence has seen the Manchester United manager become one of the game’s most iconic managers.
This season has seen Mourinho at his most vitriolic and, at times, at his most capable. Almost no Earth has been left unscorched in the Portuguese’s quest to kick off controversies and rile his players, and several big games have been won by virtue of Mourinho’s tactical acumen.
Nonetheless, the campaign is almost certain to end without major glory. Manchester City and Pep Guardiola have produced a close-to-perfect Premier League season and will surely clinch the title in record time. On the European front, it’s difficult to see a genuine Champions League push ahead: United’s squad seems short of both quality in certain areas and, more worryingly, of relevant tactical ideas. This week’s away draw to Sevilla only served to underscore how far off the pace Mourinho is in 2018.
His smash-and-grab tactics have won Man Utd battles over the course of the season – they beat Tottenham at Old Trafford and Arsenal at the Emirates playing less-than-expansive football, for example – but they no longer seem capable of winning wars. Mourinho was once an expert at setting up an ambush, spoiling a one-off game and stymying more fancied opponents, but now he stands accused of being a master of throwing away the initiative and making sure his players go out unable to perform to their maximum potential.
It’s true that his style looks increasingly outmoded at the very top level. The past decade has been a more-or-less continuous stream of glory for Pep Guardiola and his more proactive, adventurous brand of football which generally gets better results in big games than Mourinho’s, while coaches like Mauricio Pochettino and Jürgen Klopp have built much-admired Premier League sides on sound attacking principles.
Thus we are in a situation in which Man Utd are much, much better than all-but-one team in the Premier League, but they’re so far behind that team that the press and the fans are so genuinely exasperated and offended that Mourinho doesn’t even need to manipulate them to create his beloved siege mentality. Many of United’s individual players are evidently brilliant, but they’re so far behind City’s that all bar goalkeeper David De Gea are routinely criticised by a multitude of voices.
Romelu Lukaku is among the best finishers in the Premier League but is pilloried for his less-than-Messi-like goalscoring and not-always-perfect first touch. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are among the most promising and electrifying attackers in world football but they’re still young and have the occasional off-day, so they routinely get hammered. Paul Pogba is a sensational midfielder capable of doing absolutely anything, but he’s fond of changing his hairstyle and Man City are miles ahead, so he’s seen as inherently and outrageously offensive.
In almost any other season Man Utd would be within touching distance of major glory, but this season they’re miles behind an opponent producing an epochal performance, and they’ve committed the cardinal sin of being less-than gung-ho in the most televised games. Is Mourinho underperforming? Arguably, yes. Does that justify the bile? No. Do United’s opposition still have plenty to be worried about? Most certainly.
The Season Ahead
The arrival of Alexis Sánchez from Arsenal has been presented as a major coup and could well invigorate the rest of their season, but their chances of overhauling Man City are minimal, so with every passing week and every new City victory, their interest will increasingly turn to the Champions League and the FA Cup. There’s little doubt that Alexis adds the fantasy and the unpredictability that has at times been missing from their attack, but concerns remain over their ability to compete in midfield without parking the bus, and especially over their quality in wide areas.
Whether or not Man Utd can get over those hurdles against teams with the quality of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and even Manchester City remains to be seen. Furthermore, we will have to see Mourinho give Alexis, Pogba and company more creative licence than we have seen in the past if they are to get close to upsetting the odds.
In games in which Man Utd are starting as favourites, Mourinho is favouring a flexible but robust 4-2-3-1, with one sitting midfielder primarily dictating play and another more combative one primarily breaking up the opposition’s attacks. The addition of Nemanja Matić has solidified the middle and allowed Mourinho to give his full-backs more licence to attack and this in turn has added another string to United’s bow.
The third-band attackers are carrying the threat, cutting in from the touchline and looking to drive through the centre-back/full-back channel in front of them. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have had some excellent showings as wide-forwards and Jesse Lingard has blossomed as a havoc-wreaking number ten, exploiting the half-spaces on the counter and bursting into the box to score goals.
In games against more even opponents, Mourinho has at times switched to 4-3-3 or a reactive 3-4-1-2, aiming to flood the centre, soak up pressure and neutralise the opposition’s creators by denying them forward passing options. With such a defensive formation being used, attacks aren’t exactly attention-grabbing, hence the most recent deluge of criticism.
We should expect another bus-parking exercise here, and we should probably expect Antonio Conte’s Blues to face the classic Mourinho’s Chelsea 4-3-3 with two sitting midfielders with Pogba used in the Lampard role.
In case we need reminding, United’s combination of ludicrous talent and formidable organisation makes them one of the Premier League’s stand-out teams. If Chelsea are to beat them, they will probably have to be at their very, very best.
Even though their showings in recent months have been varying degrees of frustrating, United have generally produced dominant performances and the stats reflect that. They’ve recorded 14.1 shots per game while allowing 11.7 on their goal, with United also working the opposition keeper more than De Gea is forced into action. These are figures somewhat skewed by very defensive showings against other top-six opponents.
On top of that they’ve been ruthless in both boxes: their conversion rate is the Premier League’s third highest, and David De Gea’s insane save rate is easily the division’s best. Their Expected Goals ratio is the lowest of the Big Six, but easily better than the Expected Goals ratios of the Other Fourteen.
The most obvious change in United’s play this season, especially in the opening weeks of the season, is the speed and flair with which the Red Devils have flowed forward. Only five teams have completed more dribbles this season and only Arsenal, Man City and Liverpool have attempted more through balls. The addition of Alexis can only increase this advantage further.
In a basic battle of individual talent, it’s hard to bet against Man Utd: any club that can call on David De Gea, Paul Pogba, Alexis Sánchez, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku will generally win games.
To reiterate: they’re really, really, really good.
As previously stated, there are long-term worries that Mourinho may be about to torch everything around him; that Pogba is simultaneously too important to their attack and too irresponsible positionally; that the full-back situation isn’t quite satisfactory. These problems can give hope to any side facing them.
More relevant to this game is Mourinho’s now infamous and tiresome caution in high-pressure games. Even though results continue to be more positive than reactionary press coverage suggests, the obvious worry for United fans is that the Portuguese will play things far too safe and, instead of sucking his opposition into a bad position and creating space for his attackers to exploit on the break, as he believes he is doing, he will simply end up parking the bus and handing the game to the opposition.
In a league in which thirteen or fourteen of the teams are whipping boys for an increasingly dominant top six, results in the games between those six will probably decide who comes first and who comes second. If fortune favours the brave, contrasting Pep Guardiola’s tactics away to Chelsea and at Old Trafford, and Mourinho’s away to Liverpool or Spurs and against Man City at home, tells us which of the two is more likely to reap rewards come the end of the season.
The only question marks are over whether Paul Pogba will play in the midfield two or as the number ten, and whether Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford or Juan Mata starts on the right. Phil Jones is a doubt and it may be that United go for a back three with Marcus Rojo and/or Victor Lindelöf alongside Chris Smalling. In any case, United’s basic strategy is fairly easy to anticipate and prepare for, especially for Chelsea
As for Chelsea, the striker spot is well and truly up for grabs and even with Álvaro Morata fit again it’s not clear whether his mental state allows for him to start here. Presumably Antonio Conte will beef up the midfield to stifle any Man Utd control in the centre, meaning Cesc Fàbregas drops to the bench.
Both teams are struggling for form and the pressure is mounting. It’s not really reasonable to expect the best possible contest after a gruelling midweek round of Champions League knockout ties, so let’s predict a slightly bitty 1-1 draw after which both managers blame the referee for their sides’ failure to win.