Oh José, where art thou?

February 11, 2018 Tags: , Opinion 10 comments
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Football is a simple game, former England striker Gary Lineker once said in a quip about the Germans always winning. So why does José Mourinho find it so complicated? More than 18 months into the job he always wanted, Mourinho has created an expensively assembled collection of individuals. The team is perpetually over the horizon.

Manchester United’s defeat at St James’ Park on Sunday will force another reassessment of Mourinho’s performance since arriving at Old Trafford. More questions will be asked about how, after bringing in eight players and spending more than £300 million, the title-winner in four countries has built such an insipid team.

It was United’s fifth defeat in the league, but perhaps one of the most damaging. After all, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool both won over the weekend, while Chelsea faces bottom-placed West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. If the west Londoners emerge victorious just three points will separate second and fifth.

United might not have entered Sir Alex Ferguson’s “squeaky bum time” just yet, but Mourinho’s side is now finds itself in a mighty tight spot. Champions League football next season is no longer the shoe-in that Ed Woodward presumed when handing Mourinho a new contract last month.

"Questions will be asked about how, after bringing in eight players and spending more than £300 million, the title-winner in four countries has built such an insipid team."

There are details and then the bigger picture. In once sense, United dominated at St James’ Park. Mourinho’s team enjoyed more than 60 per cent possession, took more shots and found the target more often as well. The team created good chances too, including Anthony Martial’s one-on-one with debutant Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka.

The record will also show that the visitors enjoyed twice the expected goals (xG) of the home side. It was one of those occasions when data fails to tell the real narrative. In truth United rarely clicked in the north east. After all, this is a Newcastle side that hadn’t won at home in the league since October, and was soundly beaten by Chelsea, United and Manchester City in recent months.

As ever, Mourinho saw fault in the details, not his strategy. Newcastle “fought like animals,” he said. The home side fought “for their point, a point is what they had in mind” and the Geordies came out victorious only because of United’s “defensive mistake.” Newcastle “had only one thing in mind and gave their lives to keep a clean sheet,” Mourinho concluded, with just a soupçon of the melodrama in which he truly excels.

Yet, the big picture does matter. It is the second time in three games that United has lost on the road, with City now 16 points ahead in the league and coasting towards the title. This was supposed to be the campaign in which United made a credible challenge, five years on from Ferguson’s retirement.

Progress under Mourinho has come, but a sound thrashing in the league to the rampant Blues was on nobody’s agenda at Old Trafford. In fact, Mourinho’s side is on course for a sub-80 point season, a total that would have taken the title just twice in the Premier League’s 25-year history. It’s all a bit middling when excellence is what the manager promised.

Some models now have United finishing behind Liverpool in third, while there is plenty of credible evidence in the fundamentals of United’s performances this season that suggest the points garnered to date are more than a little generous. Beyond results, Mourinho has built something that is less than the sum of its parts.

It is not unfair to suggest than in over 600 days at the helm, the manager has crafted a team that is overly reliant on individual brilliance, and has far less of the collective self than any other Mourinho team in memory bar his last disastrous season at Chelsea.

Jose Mourinho

“The individual talent is there but to coordinate that into a team is Jose Mourinho’s job in the next few months,” believes former Red Gary Neville.

“He has to make them into a team. They look like a team that play five per cent below the intensity that they can play at and should play at. That’s what Jose Mourinho has to do. He has to mould this talented group of players into a team that can come together and can win the title. Next season will be Jose’s third season. He has to win it next season. They have to start preparing now.”

It probably doesn’t help that Mourinho is in the midst of yet another player feud, this time with talisman Paul Pogba. It takes very little guesswork to work out that while Mourinho wants his player to take on more defensive responsibility in a two-man central midfield, Pogba is seeking the kind of freedom to attack and create that he enjoyed at Juventus.

It is a notion that Mourinho dismisses. For the Portuguese coach midfielders – “and Paul is a midfielder” – must defend as well as they attack.

“For me box-to-box means box-to-box,” said Mourinho pointedly before United’s defeat at Newcastle. “You have to defend well, have the physical conditions to go to the other box, where you have to be good at scoring, creating, heading and then, when your team loses the ball, you have to go to the other box.”

It is an argument that defies much of the evidence, with Pogba at his imperious best in attacking situations, especially when given the freedom of defensive protection. He has neither freedom, nor protection at United.

To this end, it is odd, although not unsurprising, that Mourinho has failed to embrace a three-man midfield system that would get the most out of United’s £90 million Frenchman. It is a system where Pogba is free to attack on the understanding that two midfield colleagues are there to defend against any breakdown in possession.  His performance at Everton in a 2-0 United victory underlines this point.

Paul Pogba

It would suit new signing Alexis Sanchez too. Indeed, the question of how to deploy Alexis, the free transfer whose stratospheric wages has been the subject of much discussion in the fourth estate, is an important one. Mourinho has seemingly already answered it by deploying the Chilean on the left in the position once occupied by Martial and Marcus Rashford.

While the young Englishman missed the trip to Tyneside with a muscular injury, Martial has been shifted to the right in recent games, a role that he neither likes nor one that garners the best from a talented player. After all, Martial’s ability to cut in off the left and shoot is the sole benefit of not deploying the forward in the central position where he is most dangerous.

If Mourinho crammed two players into one by making Martial and Rashford job-share, he has only incrementally increased his choices by recruiting Alexis at two young players’ expense. Three into one does not fit, a summary that may well come to a head in next summer’s transfer market.

This is to say little about the mess in United’s defensive – supposedly Mourinho’s specialty – or the imbalance in the squad the has manifestly not been fixed despite those eight acquisitions.

Mourinho rejects any criticism of his choices: of personnel, of tactics or of approach. United’s situation, he believes, is a work in progress, one that takes place in the spotlight that shines brightly on Old Trafford. He bemoans his players’ inability to execute his ideas, and of Pep Guardiola’s ability to spend his way out of any trouble.

Where the end-game takes United is another question though. For now, Mourinho has too few answers, although it is the very essence of management.

It was once unthinkable to question the Mourinho way, at least where it came to results or the means by which the manager obtained them. He was the master tactician, the brilliant strategist, the in-game tinkerer beyond reproach. That no longer appears to be the case.

Oh José, where art thou? Your team is in a tight spot!


subterranean steve - February 12, 2018 Reply

Where is United’s on-field leadership?

It’s hard to see it, either within the individual or within the collective.

Realist Devil - February 12, 2018 Reply

Mourinho out, Sarri in.

How I see the season unfolding. We go out in the CL QF’s on away goals, bounced out of the fa cup, finish 5th, PSG get taken apart by RM, Emery Sacked, PSG get Jose, we are on the market for a new boss.

Jade Rickerts - February 12, 2018 Reply

So much money spent since Fergie retired, yet we still use Jones, Smalling, Young and Valencia in defense and Carrick in the midfield. Why did we buy Lindelof? Why isn’t Rojo playing over Smalling? And why is Pogba a problem all of a sudden? Or was it just because he’s been out for so long that we didn’t notice that he can’t play in a midfield two? So many questions, but not a lot of answers.

Fusilli Jerry - February 12, 2018 Reply

Anyone who watched the 2016 European Championships, Deschamps and Mourinho aside, will have realised then what Juventus undestood seemingly immediately about Paul Labile Pogba. You play him instead of, not with, a No.10.

You play him as your team’s principal playmaker – so therefore not burdened with defensive duties – but from a starting position in central midfield. Do not confuse this as Pogba being a central midfielder in the conventional sense. You still need 2 conventional central midfielders, just as you would with a No.10.

Given Mourinho’s grasp of this, we shouldn’t be surprised that he has disrupted Martial’s form by playing him on the right. After all, he’s disrupted Rashford’s form for the last 18 months by playing the centre forward on the left.

So let’s give Mourinho more money and a free hand, so he can swap De Gea for perma-injured Bale, offload those meddling kids Martial and Shaw, recruit the 29 year old Vidal; after all he’s shown such an unerring eye with Mkhitaryan and Lindelof, and shown such ability with getting the most out of De Bruyne, Salah, Pogba.

Michael Warburton - February 12, 2018 Reply

Mourinho has to go. It’ll take that horrendous entity ‘player power’ (and negative media impact on ‘brand United’) or MAYBE non-qualification for the CL – for Woodward to slap his own face having just prematurely (and weakly again) handed Mourinho a stupidly early new contract (all he had to do was MAKE him wait until the end of the season in a few short months ffs). Whichever way it comes about Mourihno isn’t going to change and he was only ever going to work at ours if he changed the professional & footballing habits tactics and behaviours of an entire career. He clearly isn’t going to do that. So it, He, won’t work. Woodward better have a Plan B because many of us knew it was never going to end well with Mourinho and we now have a season and a half’s evidence that makes this abundantly clear. (Go back for Poch – or at least make overtures and see if it’s a possibility – look at Enrique, look at whoever Woodward – but you’d better have a Plan B up your sleeve or you truly are appalling at your job or simply don’t care)

Julian - February 13, 2018 Reply

The club will be very reluctant to get rid of Mourinho who would then be the third manager to bite the dust since Fergie. The new contract was premature and the whole Mourinho tenure should instead have been re-assessed at the end of the season. Mind you, the new contract is only for one more year so the cost of reneging on it would not be crippling.

The club saw Mourinho as the perfect foil to Guardiola’s appointment at City. In theory they were right. However, many had misgivings about him, including Sir Bobby. Whilst he undoubtedly had the track record his behaviour and, at times, over cautious or negative tactics (which, on the whole, haven’t worked anyway) were felt to be considerable disadvantages when assessing his suitability for the United job. The acrimony with certain players at Real followed by a similar episode at Chelsea which was the main reason for their dramatic implosion, were surely warning signs. Nevertheless, he was hired and now 18 months later those doubts about his suitability have come to the surface. More worryingly, as each week passes, Mourinho appears to be a manager who really doesn’t know what he is doing in terms of tactics and getting the best out of his players. The signing of Sanchez, with little practical thought as to where he would fit in, except in Martial’s favoured wide left spot, is indicative of this.

New contract or not, Mourinho’s continued tenure at United must be re-assessed at the end of the season.

Brian Guiney - February 13, 2018 Reply

you hit the nail on the head there with the comment on relying on individuals rather than any coherent attacking unit….. also I agree that the midfield 3 of Matic, Pogba and Herrera at Everton was important in our best tactical performance of the season where we defended solidly and attacked well (albeit against a poor Everton side). Ignoring the opposition though we looked excellent in that game and despite all the 4 nils we have rarely looked excellent

we’ve effectively been playing a 4-1-4-1 with Pogba’s lack of discipline with Jose trying to shoehorn him into a 4-2-3-1…. this is only a small element of the problem though…..the real question is…. Has Mourinho ever led a side that was anything but functional?

Madrid being the one possible exception where he had such fantastic attacking options but still put Pepe in midfield to stifle Barca

add United, Chelsea, Inter…… all well organised functional teams really

Wil - February 14, 2018 Reply

The team isn’t as unbalanced as it looks but I 110% agree that Pogba should play in the no. 10 position not 6 or 8. Herrara and Matic as the 2 central midfielders will fix it up. Martial and Rashford’s development will be slower but if Mourinho needs results immediately, something has to give. Why mourinho doesn’t use our best player, Herrera, last season is the real mystery. If we need to chase a game then 433!


Sanchez/ Martial

Mata/ Lingard

Pogba/ Mata


Dazza2501 - February 14, 2018 Reply

Why Woodward handed Mourinho a new contact now is beyond me. The net spend is not much less than City’s yet United are 16 points adrift and far less convincing.Despite Mourinho & Duncan Castles claims of City being the big spenders.
I always thought United would need an overhaul post Fergie, yet struggled to find the right manager to do It.As United lack a Sporting Director the case for Mourinho became even clearer given his history of building winning teams. However, he has had plenty of financial backing with an enviable array of attacking talent and scope in the likes of Martial & Rashford for significant improvement. What he has failed to do is provide a platform. A defence of Valencia, Jones, Smalling & Young won’t ever be of Premier League winning standard & he has failed to apply a formation that gets the most from Pogba or his forwards. Mourinho appears too stubborn to learn, playing the same tactics against Newcastle that was so insipid against Spurs. One of Fergies great strengths was his ability to learn, both from his own mistakes and adapt good ideas from other managers, so he was constantly trying to evolve. For United’s sake I hope I’m wrong but with the likes of Pep, Klopp & Pochetino all getting rave reviews this week I wonder if Mourinho has had his day.

Denton Davey - February 15, 2018 Reply

UTD are in interesting territory – still second but only a few points (and 11 games-to-go) from fifth.

Acknowledging Jo$e’s caution, it’s probably not the time to experiment but since I’m not in any way “responsible” for the team’s results then I would be much more gung-ho about shifting the team’s personnel and organization.

First, I’d make the go-to formation 4-3-3 because that’s clearly the way to get something-good from Pogba.

Second, I’d let FutureCaptainMcTominay be the third midfielder.

Third, I’d not play AshleyBloodyYoung ahead of Luke Shaw. NOT EVER !

Fourth, I’d also cast BigManSmalling into the nether regions of marginality.

Fifth, my preferred starting central defence would – somewhat reluctantly – be Rocky Rojo and MrJones with Lindelof and Blind being the back-ups as long as Eric Bailly can’t get fit. When/if [??] Bailly gets fit then I’d play him alongside Rocky, with MrJones shuffling down the pecking order.

Across the front, I’d be willing to experiment – guaranteeing no one a job but mixing-and-matching to see what combination works best as-a-combination. IF that means Sanchez/Lukaku are benched then so be it.

Going forward, I’d give Fosu-Mensah and Tuanzebe every chance to be part of a re-built back-four. Also, I’d look for another top-quality midfielder to provide competition for McTominay and Matic (who really does need a rest).

With regard to the rest of this season, my fingers are crossed that Jo$e realizes what the rest of you have argued – 4-3-3 AND hopes AND prayers that one of the other three competing for the top-four hit a big, big banana-skin. Otherwise, it’s just going to be more of the same and none of us want that.

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