Flexibility key as daunting run-in looms
José Mourinho’s arrival at Manchester United last summer was met with excitement and skepticism in equal measure. Supporters raised questions not just about Mourinho’s style of play and its relevance, but the manager’s tendency to court controversy. Yet, Mourinho has demonstrated another quality – flexibility. It may be key as the season draws to a close.
“Mourinho is a winner,” Fernando Soriano, the former Barcelona CEO and now Manchester City executive, once wrote, but “in order to win, he guarantees a level of tension that becomes a problem.” Soriano famously appointed Pep Guardiola over Mourinho as Barcelona manager in 2008.
"Mourinho’s arrival at United was met with excitement and skepticism. Supporters raised questions about Mourinho’s style and the manager’s tendency to court controversy. Yet, another quality – flexibility – may be key."
In the past few months the Portuguese manager has gone to great lengths to prove that he has adapted to the United way – claiming that his approach has matured and that he is now “more in control of (his) emotions.” Mourinho has even sought credit for a more cavalier approach, proclaiming that he didn’t have many teams “playing so well as this Man United team does.”
With a defence susceptible to mistakes and a team lacking grit, Mourinho has been forced to learn from each dropped point, particularly those lost from winning positions, such as in games against Everton and Arsenal. It is this that may have prompted Mourinho to adopt a more attacking approach. While questions can be raised about Mourinho’s effectiveness this season, the endeavor to fit in is conspicuous.
Another noticeable move away from his past is Mourinho’s frequent changes in formation and personnel. While the manager is certainly not tactically inflexible, he has shown a preference for a 4-2-3-1 formation since his time at Inter. Meanwhile, he has always preferred to use a small group of players, showing a general aversion to rotation or otherwise failing to do it effectively.
Mourinho was heavily criticized for his lack of rotation after Real Madrid’s Champions League exit to Bayern Munich in 2011-12. That season, Mourinho’s La Liga winning Real Madrid side featured nine players who played more than 2,000 league minutes, compared to only six at runners-up Barcelona. In Chelsea’s title-winning ’14-15 season during his second spell at the club, a jaded team failed to overcome 10-men Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League and failed in the FA Cup.
“Now you can see why I never rotate my team,” lamented an angry Mourinho, after his team was dumped out of the FA Cup by Bradford. The physical and mental exertions from a relentless campaign also contributed to the collapse that ensued the following season.
The only time Mourinho has successfully utilized the depth of his squad was at Inter during the club’s treble winning season, resting key players before or after Champions League matches. Inter had won the previous four domestic league titles and clearly prioritized continental glory, although retained Serie A in any case.
Mourinho is no Tinkerman, yet at United his hand has been forced, partially due to a demanding schedule, but also because he still doesn’t know his preferred group of players. Despite complaining about a bloated squad at the start of the season, fringe players have increasingly been involved as the season has progressed.
Over the season, Mourinho has set United up in a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, before briefly adopting a 3-4-3 formation. United’s central defensive partnership, midfield combination and wingers have all been frequently shuffled. Among Chelsea’s ‘14-15 title winners, three players featured in all 38 league games and three others missed only two games. Currently, David de Gea is the only player who even stands a chance at missing less than two games by the end of the season. For a manager whose teams thrive due to the manager’s imposed stability, United’s inconsistency has held the team back.
There’s some irony in that exposing players to a variety of roles and the use of multiple formations this season may help the team cope with the congested run-in. At Middlesbrough, with Ander Herrera and Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended, and Paul Pogba injured, United set-up in a 3-4-3 formation with Bailly as the right-sided centre-back, Valencia at right wing-back,and Mata deployed as a wide forward. With Boro dominating early on, United switched to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 when defending, Valencia now positioned further forward as a right-winger and Bailly at right-back. That flexibly allowed United to overcome a tough passage and dominate the remainder of the match.
Trailing to Phil Jagielka’s goal against Everton, Mourinho replaced Daley Blind with Pogba and switched to a back three, while during the FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge, United operated with something approach a back six – Phil Jones and Matteo Darmian man-marked the opposition’s wide-forwards, with two spare centre-backs and wingers Ashley Young and Valencia dropping to cover the full-back positions.
Similar flexibility will allow United to manage a packed schedule, giving the team a little more time to prepare for the opposition ahead. Even if he does not like it, Mourinho now has no option but to rotate. The upcoming game against Chelsea is sandwiched between two Europa League quarter-final ties against Anderlecht, while away trips to Burnley and Manchester City will be played within three days of each other.
Then, in a hectic start to May, United will play five games in two weeks including two semi-final ties in the Europa League, if the Reds make it that far, together with away games against Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. United must play more games against the top six in the Premier League than any of the club’s rivals for the Champions League.
Yet, Mourinho must use the full depth of his squad during this run. After all, the manager has already described Pogba’s injury as an “accumulation of fatigue” and he will want to avoid similar injuries to other players.
Yet, Mourinho must manage the run-in with an imbalanced squad. His defence requires less rotation, and has the most depth, albeit with some injuries at the present. Of the five outfield players who have made the most appearances for United in the league this season, there are no centre backs and Valencia is the only defensive player. This is perhaps why Mourinho experimented with a three-man defence – to maximize his resources.
By contrast, in centre midfield and forward positions, the team has little cover. Every player has a unique set of attributes and there are no like for like replacements. His centre forwards are distinct; Ibrahimovic is the slower, stronger man who can hold the ball up, while Marcus Rashford uses his pace and movement to get behind the opposition.
There are similar contrasts in midfield, where Michael Carrick likes to dictate play from deep, Marouane Fellaini plays a very specific, if limited role, Herrera disrupts opposition play, and Pogba is the creative fulcrum. This gives Mourinho different options, but it also means that any injury or suspension will require an overhaul of the team’s strategy. In this regard the lack of recent international football will have served Martial and Pogba well, while suspensions to Ibrahimovic and Herrera may have benefited the team in the longer run.
In his first season at United Mourinho has already shown a willingness to adapt and evolve. Squad rotation might be his latest adjustment, but one made from compulsion and not choice. The silver lining among many ominous clouds is that Mourinho’s side still has control over the season’s outcome. If United does well in the games against others in the top six, the Reds should end up in the Champions League places despite sub-par home form.