Mourinho reimagines his past to revitalise Reds’ future

April 16, 2017 Tags: , Reads 12 comments
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It was archetypal José Mourinho. On Sunday, the Portuguese manager found the perfect tactical riposte to the champions elect at Old Trafford. His Manchester United side emerged victorious after nullifying Chelsea in impressive fashion. Not that Mourinho’s team was on the defensive in victory against Antonio Conte’s side on Sunday. Far from it. The Portuguese manager reimagined his natural and historical inclination towards destructive football in his finest performance as United manager to date.

United’s dramatic victory potentially opens up the title race, with Tottenham Hotspur now just four points behind Chelsea. More importantly for United, victory leaves the Reds in touch with the top four as the season’s denouement approaches. If Mourinho’s team wins games held in hand over Manchester City and Liverpool the gap will be down to one and zero points. All to play for with just seven games to go.


United impressed by destroying Chelsea’s ability to play, highlighted by the visitors taking just three shots over the match and getting none on target. This is a Chelsea team that averages more than 14 shots per game over the Premier League season and has scored 65 goals.

But this wasn’t Mourinho’s anti-football at play, at least not as many understand it in the context of the manager’s career. On Sunday United enjoyed 47 per cent possession at Old Trafford, only dropping below 50 per cent in the second half when Mourinho sacrificed Jesse Lingard’s pace and endeavour for Michael Carrick’s greater defensive nous.

"This was perfectly set-up for Mourinho to shine. He is the great reactive tactician, a master at building a bespoke plan for a one-off game. It has won the 54-year-old so many trophies."

United also took more shots than Chelsea and played more passes in the attacking third. This was a vibrant, attacking United, even if the team was set up to destroy the visitors from the inside out.

Nor did United kick Chelsea off-the-park as Conte suggested was Mourinho’s strategy during the recent FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge. On this occasion it was the visitors who committed more fouls, even though Mourinho’s team attempted, and succeeded with, more tackles.

United won because, much as in that FA Cup tie, Mourinho targeted both Chelsea’s main attacking threat and principle defensive fulcrum. Once again Ander Herrera was charged with shepherding Eden Hazard, while Paul Pogba’s incessant ability to drive forward occupied N’Golo Kante, mentally and physically.

More than Herrera and Pogba, United can thank Mourinho’s decision to impose a high press for what might be only the second time this season, after the team played with similar intensity at Anfield. Chelsea simply couldn’t cope with it.

Manchester United, Chelsea

Little wonder Mourinho found room to crow in the aftermath, celebrating not only United’s victory on Sunday, but the opportunity lost in the Cup, when Herrera’s controversial dismissal cost the Reds.

“We went to Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup with same tactics and the game was totally controlled when we played with 11 players,” Mourinho said.

“Only the decision that made us play with 10 men for the second half, plus some minutes in the first half, gave Chelsea a chance to be dominant, but we knew that if we played this way then it would be very difficult for them. I think everyone did what they had to do.”

“I am really happy with the team and the results, because the Manchester City and Liverpool results left us in the position of needing to win. Not even a draw would be a good result for us, so I am really happy for the boys and for us because we keep two windows open to try to play Champions League football.”

Mourinho’s team selection also paid off in spectacular fashion. The Portuguese manager rested Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the first time in league football, seemingly suggesting from the off that he had decided to prioritise Thursday’s Europa League match with Anderlecht.

Far from it. As the match played out, with United punishing Chelsea on the break, it became clear that Mourinho has worked out that brilliant though Ibrahimovic is, the Swede has a certain inhibiting influence on United’s pace. Not so Rashford and his strike partner Jesse Lingard. “Maybe we didn’t rest,” noted the manager. “Maybe we just chose the team that we thought was the best team.”

With two in attack, Rashford and Lingard continually isolated David Luiz, with the Brazilian exposed once before the young England striker burst past the defender to score United’s opener.

Manchester United, Chelsea

The manager’s decision to switch to a back three was also vindicated, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young full of endeavour at wing-back, restricting the space normally enjoyed by Victor Moses and, on this occasion, César Azpilicueta. The system also offered Pogba the freedom of Old Trafford, with the £89 million midfielder, protected by Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, finally imposing himself on countryman Kante.

It was also a day on which Herrera excelled in a destructive role. The Spaniard was sent off at Stamford Bridge for two innocuous fouls on Hazard, one probably not an infringement at all. Now came retribution, with Herrera shadowing Hazard to such good effect for more than 70 minutes that the Belgian took no shots, created just one chance, and completed just 78 per cent of his passes, with only 15 in attacking areas. One of the players of the season, reduced to a passenger.

“It was almost perfect,” said Herrera post-match. “Defensively it was perfect; they’re top of the table but didn’t have any chances. On the counter-attack we hurt them but we played football as well; we controlled the game. I think we can be very happy.”

Herrera, of course, was much more pivotal than solely being the hosts’ defensive shield, with the Spaniard playing the perfectly weighted pass from which Marcus Rashford score the opener. The former Athletic Bilbao player then smashed home the second in joyous fashion.

Rashford, Lingard, Herrera

This, of course, was perfectly set-up for Mourinho to shine; the great reactive tactician, a master at building a bespoke plan for a one-off game. It is the ability that has won the 54-year-old so many trophies.

The challenge now for the manager is to parse Sunday’s victory into seven more than will guarantee Champions League football next season. While the Reds have suffered most when facing middled-ranked teams at Old Trafford, the manner of United’s win over this season’s probable champions may provide a lesson learned. There are, after all, pivotal away games at City, Arsenal and Spurs yet to come. United will probably need to win them all.

“I cannot yet give up the Premier League,” said Mourinho in the aftermath. “We have to try and if one day we are in the Europa League and in the Premier League the distance is too big, then we have to prioritise and nobody can criticise us if in the last matches of the league we do it in a different way. But while it is mathematically possible, we have to go with everything we have.”

Supporters must hope that Mourinho is picking the strongest side possible when the Reds travel to Crystal Palace on the final day. The manager may not need a special plan for that one.


Matt - April 17, 2017 Reply

Vgood analysis from a tremendous performance – only one thing; I think Chelsea’s wingback is Victor, not Remi Moses!

NazManUnited - April 17, 2017 Reply

Trusting the players 👍 with the freedom to play one touch lighting ‘pure footie’

The Lawman - April 17, 2017 Reply

Remi Moses? Must have given us an advantage age-wise.

Denton Davey - April 17, 2017 Reply

Yesterday’s win was very reminiscent of matches when SAF played “surprise players” (like the match when TheLads ended TheArse’s self-proclaimed invincibles or when he used BOTH Da Silva brothers or when ThreeLungPark was given a prominent role) and had them work together in a tight, disciplined game-plan. It was also a match when speed was crucial in attacking the opposition – and that was greatly welcomed.

On the other side of the ball, as it were, I was especially happy to see Rocky put Costa in his pocket and keep him in there, well hidden and out of sight. While CSKALondon had NO SHOTS ON GOAL, TheLads had four or five really excellent ones which, with better shooting (again !), could have ended up in a stonking victory like the glorious 8-2 against TheArse or the 7-1 against Roma.

Hopefully, Jo$e will get the hint that he needs to play with more speed-players. I’d really like to see Martial play in Lingard’s role because he’s a much more talented player but it’s not clear that Tony Martial has the same commitment.

The other thing that really came-to-the-fore was the excellent play of the central defensive partnership – Rocky and Bailly really complement one another.

Fusilli Jerry - April 17, 2017 Reply

So much better from Mourinho, who seemed to avail himself of a tactical masterstroke called “rotation”. Rest your centre forward who has played every minute of every game and is tired; play your other centre forward in their proper position. Whatever next?

So pleased also to see Darmian given a rare fair chance to show that players inherited from a previous manager might actually be worth keeping. Just hope that Shaw will also be rehabilitated not discarded like Lukaku and De Bruyne – starting with the 2nd leg against Anderlecht, when the Englishman will be fresher than the Italian in the same way that Mkhitaryan will be fresher than Lingard, that platform giving both the opportunity to make the same kind of difference Rashford made against a drained Chelsea. Too much to hope?

Denton Davey - April 17, 2017 Reply

“Rest your centre forward who has played every minute of every game and is tired; play your other centre forward in their proper position.”

Well, not quite – Zlatan played against Anderlecht but in the weeks before last Thursday’s match he had only played once – against Sunderland – and was “involuntarily rested” for three other matches in England. Similarly, where did you find that the opposition was “a drained Chelsea” – the RentBoyz hadn’t played mid-week and, indeed, have only played EPL matches and a few cup games this season. They weren’t drained, they were beaten like the proverbial “rented mule”.

The issue yesterday was not about “proper positions” but, rather, proper speed – of thought and on foot. (Even the fleet-footed AshleyBloodyYoung did well unless [or until] he was within shooting-distance of goal.) What Jo$e saw was that Chelsea’s back three could be turned – and Marcus Rashford was very much for turning them, twice in the first seven minutes ! After that, they suffered from what SAF called “twisted blood” and over the course of the match TheLads had a number of excellent sights of goal – but, still, awful shooting accuracy.

I think that the other takeaway from yesterday’s match is that a lot of the “dross” isn’t quite as useless as is often claimed. Darmian and Valencia and even Fellaini are internationals. UTD’s squad is strong-in-depth but weak in “balance” since, in my opinion, these two fullbacks are pretty useless as attacker and Fellaini’s primary attribute is his size and, especially, his quite-incredible clumsiness. However, none of these guys are players who should be first-choice in their roles/positions.

What’s needed to upgrade this team is twofold: more speed and more quality which, I think, means less Zlatan-dependence. The best UTD have played in the last decade was Cristiano Ronaldo’s penultimate season when CR7, TheWayneBoy and Carlitos were interchanging, continually giving defenders a sense of discomfort as the whirligig of UTD’s attaching trident made it difficult for opposing defenders to mark either men or space.

But, for all the hope and joy of yesterday’s performance and result, this season is probably going to continue to be Zlatan-dependent although, in my opinion, it would probably be a good thing for him to ride off into the sunset (in LA ?) with the knowledge that he came, he saw, and he conquered the Europa League. Rather like Dimmy, Ibra slows down the game to a walking pace and that allows teams that park-the-bus to be compact and successful if they remain disciplined. Thursday night against Anderlecht is going to be really interesting in this regard because TheLads must absolutely/positively score first otherwise UTD will be playing against eleven men in the box.

Steve Moulton - April 18, 2017 Reply

Still hoarse!

rusty ring peas - April 18, 2017 Reply

when we play like that more often I’ll get excited. if we’d dont that in 5-6 of those crappy draws we’d…

Pebblesmeller - April 18, 2017 Reply

He displayed, yet again, his ability to get outstanding performances from ordinary players eg Fellani,…

Useless Pseudonym - April 18, 2017 Reply

Great article, one of best I’ve read in recent times on United. Mou’s gameplan simple but devastatingly effective.

NazManUnited - April 18, 2017 Reply

Great British Bake Off, we made chelsea crumble

Sportpesa Games - April 19, 2017 Reply

Fantastic win, The Rushford move was a classic…

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