Whisper it but the outlook is a lot rosier for José Mourinho and his Manchester United side. The Reds have embarked on a seven game winning streak delivering different types of victories in the process… but victories nonetheless.
In United’s win against Sunderland, for example, Old Trafford was treated to an element of fantasy football, capped off with Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s outrageous scorpion kick; the game against Middlesbrough bore witness to a stirring comeback not seen since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, while at the London Stadium United ground out a 2-0 victory on Monday night.
The progression that was evident during a spate of draws in the autumn is now bearing fruit in terms of results, as Mourinho’s de-Van Gaal-ing of United gathers steam. Of course, supporters’ positivity still needs to be balanced out by a sense of realism as United remain in sixth in the league, but nonetheless the team is now unquestionably in a better position to challenge for a top four spot.
The cause of United’s upward mobility? A large part of the trend is down to Mourinho tackling a whole range of niggling issues and deftly coming up with answers to the big questions asked of him. The result is a list of achievements that bode well for United as the team enters the New Year.
The Wayne Rooney Conundrum
There was a time when leaving out Wayne Rooney would have raised an endless list of questions regardless of how well the United captain was performing. It is to the United manager’s credit that he’s managed the situation with a minimum amount of fuss. Today, the Scouser’s exclusion, when fit, is not discussed with any fanfare.
When Mourinho first took up the job at Old Trafford he insisted that Rooney would operate as a striker and gave the number 10 a chance to stake his claim. Rooney failed to present a convincing case and such was his public decline the only sensible decision was to take him out of the firing line. There have been important contributions – setting up the winner against Hull comes to mind – but overall there’s nothing to suggest that Rooney’s old spark will ever return.
"Mourinho has ensured that the club’s joint record goal scorer hasn’t felt ostracized. Ibrahimović and Pogba have taken the limelight, enabling the United captain to focus on his football with some encouraging performances."
Despite withdrawing Rooney from a frontline role Mourinho has ensured that the club’s joint record goal scorer hasn’t felt ostracized. The pressure is somewhat off Rooney as Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba have taken the limelight away, enabling the United captain to focus on his football an, indeed, there have been some encouraging cameo performances.
Mourinho’s response to the controversy surrounding Rooney’s impromptu tipple while on England duty was to protect his player and question the 31-year-old’s treatment by the FA. It would have been easy to hang Rooney out to dry, but Mourinho opted to back his waning star’s corner. Gestures like that do go a long way.
José has effectively diffused the Rooney question, which is no mean feat. Now seeing the striker on the bench provokes nothing more than an afterthought – the true demonstration of how skillfully Mourinho has managed this potentially sticky situation.
Under Mourinho’s watch United has signed Eric Bailly, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimović, and Pogba. It goes without saying they have all been hits, albeit to different degrees. The Portuguese manager may have benefitted from Ed Woodward learning some hard lessons in previous windows, but it cannot escape the attention that last summer’s player recruitment was focused and efficient.
The scattergun policy under Louis van Gaal and David Moyes appears to be behind United. Mourinho knows exactly what he wants in the market and as a result an element of stability has been established. Granted, not all future transfers will be hits, but at the very least Mourinho has demonstrated that he can help facilitate big deals while minimizing risky purchases. Future windows can be looked upon with a sense of expectation rather than dread.
Remember when Juan Mata was subbed on and then off again in the Community Shield? There was a storm in a tea cup surrounding that particular move, with some mischievous reporters claiming that Mata was angry at Mourinho. Nothing of the sort.
"Mata’s imminent departure was assumed with Mourinho’s arrival, but the Spaniard has been an important member of United’s squad. He provides a sense of guile that few others in the squad possess."
Mata’s imminent departure was assumed with Mourinho’s arrival, but the Spaniard has been an important member of United’s squad and has notched up four league goals, including United’s first of the Mourinho era, as well as two assists. In all competitions the Spaniard has found the net six times and, though he hasn’t finished a game under José’s watch, Mata provides a element of guile that few others in the squad possess.
Perhaps Mourinho had a change of heart, maybe he’s being the arch pragmatist, but the United boss recognizes that this squad needs Mata’s cunning. It’s clear that the pair share common ground.
The De-Van Gaalification of Old Trafford
There’s a stat going around showing the number of shots United has taken under Mourinho compared with Van Gaal. Mourinho admitted that it would have been easier to work with an entirely new group of players and not deprogram the squad that he inherited from the Dutchman.
Slowly but surely the squad has come around to Mourinho’s style of football if the shots stats are anything to go by, with United managing 74 shots in 10 games at home thus far compared with 75 in the whole of last season. The style, to use football parlance, is more vertical and play has been more dynamic as a result. The team has scored 31 goals in 20 games this campaign compared to the 24 in the same number of matches last season. It may be a while before we see another 44-pass goal.
The resurrections of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo
Hands up who thought Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo would be United’s first choice centre-back pairing? It’s a resurrection of Lazarus proportions, but ever since his return against Swansea City in November Jones has been an ever-present member of the first team. That the Englishman was rested against Middlesbrough shows how far he has come. More encouraging though is that Jones has been able to string together a run of games. Earlier this season, this site posited that for Jones to return to the fold he would need “an extended period of clean health to rebuild his career at Old Trafford – and he must hope that the other players competing for his position suffer a dip in form or a long-term injury.” Finally, the luckless number 4 has enjoyed the rub of the green. He’s seizing the opportunity.
Marcos Rojo has been an unexpected hit too, though it must be noted that he was fortunate not to see red against Crystal Palace and Everton. Once lampooned, the player is now a lynchpin of United’s backline and performing very well. The Argentinean is benefitting from José’s preference of playing stoppers and not ball playing center-backs and the general instruction to get the ball forward quicker.
The team is yet to lose whenever Rojo and Jones have started together, a remarkable statistic all things considered, and it’s a testament to Mourinho’s coaching ability that he has raised the performance and fitness levels of the duo to such a degree that it’s now almost taken for granted that they are United’s first choice defensive partnership.
Ander Herrera’s transformation
The former Athletic Bilbao player is now one of the first names on the list when José selects his team. It’s quite the turnaround given Van Gaal’s distrust of the Spaniard. Herrera’s commitment to all things United quickly made him popular with the fans, but the Spaniard is now doing his talking on the pitch too.
In a sense it’s not difficult to see why Mourinho would take a liking to the midfielder. Herrea is a feisty presence ready to snap into tackles while spliting defences with surgically precise passes. The level of discipline that he has added has ensured that he’s worthy of a starting spot. José dished out his advice and found an eager student.
Mourinho has inflicted some wounds on his team as well. One of them was to ignore Michael Carrick’s claim for a starting spot early in the campaign. It’s no coincidence that United’s form has picked up with the metronomic midfielder’s return. The 35-year old needs to be handled with care given his advanced age, but Mourinho gains credit for recognizing an error of judgement and bringing the Geordie back into the line-up. Pogba has been freed up as a result, and the world-record signing has gone on from strength to strength in his natural position.
Similarly, United started off the season playing a stultifying 4-2-3-1 – a remnant from Van Gaal’s era – and the formation didn’t get the best out of United’s key players, especially Pogba. Initially, it looked like Mourinho was looking for the players to fit into his system, but as the season has progressed a gradual shift to 4-3-3 has brought the best out of the talent available.
The aggregation of marginal gains
Mourinho’s reign has not been a whirlwind revolution. If anything it’s an evolution with aggregated gains building up to improve United’s fortunes.
"Small improvements are making a difference. It remains to be seen if this run can continue, but with each victory comes further proof that Mourinho is taking United in the right direction."
That said it has been a bumpy road for the United boss. Mourinho hastily isolated Bastian Schweinsteiger, even if rumours suggest it was at the squad’s behest, and looks to have a rocky relationship with Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw. Perhaps most tellingly, Mourinho initially struggled to recapture his mojo after the spectacular demise at Chelsea. Yet, if Mourinho’s recent tactical substitutions are anything to go by, the Portuguese coach may have got his groove back.
But it is the little improvements that are starting to make a difference. It remains to be seen if this run can continue, but with each victory comes further proof that Mourinho is taking United in the right direction.