Mourinho may not be ready to unleash United’s shackles
Mourinho has enjoyed a good pre-season: the club has secured three of the four signings the manager demanded, his team is better prepared than this time last year, and confidence is growing after the Reds emerged victorious in all but one of seven games this summer.
Wednesday’s victory over Sampdoria in Dublin followed an easy win over Valerenga in Oslo, to follow a tour of the US that brought defeat only to Barcelona. Across those seven games Mourinho’s team scored 15 goals, conceding just six. There is a good feeling going into the new campaign.
"Mourinho has enjoyed a good pre-season: the club has secured three signings, his team is better prepared, and confidence is growing."
The players are fitter than last August as well, having enjoyed better facilities and more training time in the US than was ever possible during last summer’s weather-impacted tour of Asia. Mourinho got his way with a longer programme of football this summer that leaves most players finely tuned ahead of the new campaign. Romelu Lukaku, in particular, has enjoyed plenty of minutes in preparation for the new season – and there is probably no more important figure in the United squad, although there are, of course, better players.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of the summer was Mourinho’s constant tinkering with formations and tactics. United ended pre-season in Dublin with an oddly dysfunctional back three. It is possible Mourinho’s side will start with that shape in next week’s UEFA Supercup against Real Madrid, suggesting that it is Mourinho’s go-to approach in the more challenging games this season.
That may not augur well for the Reds’ ability to rapidly climb the Premier League table. Mourinho has tended to use the three – or five – man defence not for attacking variety, but defensive security. Indeed, United’s goalscoring deficit last season was caused, in part, by Mourinho’s natural tendency to caution. If he uses a back three in Skjope next week, it will be far more about creating a solid defensive platform, than following an in vogue tactical trend. After all, Mourinho needs to feel safe defensively before attacking players are trusted – and for much of last season the manager was focused on not losing as much as he was on winning.
United must surely change that pattern in the months to come. To challenge for the Premier League title, chances must be converted into goals; draws turned into victories; defeats into unlikely draws. The team’s 54 Premier League goals last season was just the ninth best in the division, hence the requirement for Lukaku to hit the ground running. It may prove an upgrade of sorts – Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 28 goals across all competitions, but the Swede converted a far lower percentage of chances than Lukaku did at Everton.
The attacking problem is broader than strikers alone, although it is not for want of talented players. Lukaku will be supported by Marcus Rashford, Antony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba this season – a multi-talented collection of players each of whom has the ability to score double figures in the season to come. Each of the quintet will play a part, although only Lukaku and Pogba are guaranteed to start, yet the club’s summer-long pursuit of Ivan Perisic suggests that the manager is far from happy with his attacking options.
“Everybody is in the plan,” Mourinho added after United’s 2-1 victory over Sampdoria. “The plan is not to have a good team, but a good squad, with options. We need options. Lukaku, Martial, Rashford – all of them are different players. We need everyone. It’s going to be good, it’s going to be fun to choose the team for every match according to the plan, the opponent, our game-plan.”
Yet, the counter-intuitive assumption is that Mourinho needs to feel defensive security before he will allow greater attacking freedom. Defensively, Mourinho has more numbers following Victor Lindelöf’s acquisition, although the Swede is taking some time to come to terms with his new club.
The extra body should give Mourinho the security he needs, but it also appears to have created even greater managerial indecision. Mourinho has attributed some of his summer defensive tinkering to Eric Bailly’s European ban, with the Ivorian set to miss two European games in the coming month. Yet, the impression that the manager does not yet know or trust his back three or four is strong.
Nemanja Matic’s acquisition last week should help as well. The Serbian is an uninspiring water-carrier, but his experience in front of the back-four will help fashion a more organised and functional defensive unit.
Indeed, if the Portuguese does go with a five-man defence against Real, with Matic sat in front as well, it will drive home the impression that the manager is not yet ready to unleash his attacking talents. That, in effect, he does not trust his squad.
Mourinho said as much in the summer, declaring that he must “compensate for the difference in quality with a certain tactical organisation,” and that “with that you can win in football,” Mourinho added. “It’s possible a team is in a certain day better than the sum of the parts, that’s possible in football.”
It is true that the US tour exposed many of United’s weaknesses: the continued uncertainty in central defence, a shortage at left-back, and the continuing lack of natural width. It says little at this stage, of course, but United scored just once in games against Real Madrid and Barça, although the Reds were good value for a two goal victory over Manchester City.
But there is also little to suggest, ceteris paribus, United will score the 20 to 30 more goals the team might need for a genuine crack at the title. For that Mourinho needs to move beyond the apparent obsession with signing Perisic, a decent but one-dimensional left-winger, towards trusting in his team and throwing a modicum of caution to the wind.
That’s an alternative alternative approach the manager has rarely tried in his time at Old Trafford.