The unlikely lads
When José Mourinho waltzed into Old Trafford eyes were quickly cast at the playing squad. Who would be retained; who would be shipped out? There were a few names that immediately stood out as destined for the chop, but after the Community Shield and first couple of Premier League fixtures a number of these unlikely lads have stepped up to prove their worth to the Portuguese manager. Some could become components in a potentially successful season.
If a player was the living personification of David Moyes’ and Louis van Gaal’s conservative philosophies it’s the Ecuadorian. Valencia’s safety-first approach to playing full-back masked his lack of positional awareness and his ineffectiveness going forward. Despite all glaring deficiencies Valencia was still picked over the adventurous, if hotheaded and injury prone, Rafael da Silva and more recently Matteo Darmian.
Last season was one to forget for Valencia as he spent a significant portion of it injured due to an ankle problem. Valencia offered just three assists in the league. The previous campaign came with more game time, but fewer telling attacking contributions – just two goals created. If anything marks the player out it’s his pass completion stats, which hovers just under 90 per cent. It’s arguable whether Valencia doesn’t give away possession cheaply or that he’s simply unadventurous with the ball at his feet. The cynics point out that playing adventurous football is completely alien to the Ecuadorian.
This season there’s been a transformation. The signs were there when Valencia provided three assists for United in the pre-season friendly against Galatasaray. Since then he’s been providing width for Mourinho down the right flank with gusto. As if to prove the point Valencia provided the cross for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to head home the winner against Leicester City in the Community Shield. United’s new manager pointed out that had Valencia been in that position to put a ball in the box last season he would probably have passed it back.
Valencia is benefitting from Mourinho’s desire to attack in a more direct manner. His dormant attacking instincts have been reawakened and he has played with the confidence of a proper Manchester United winger. It’s been exciting to watch too as United hasn’t included a truly swashbuckling full-back since Rafael. While adding a forward dimension to his game, Valencia is still tidy with the ball and more at ease defensively.
Despite talk of United recruiting Monaco defender Fabinho, Valencia is putting forward a good case for being retaining as the first choice right back.
The archetypal Van Gaal player, Blind is king in the land of multi-functional footballers. So when José assumed charge at United one would have reasonably thought that the son of Danny would be moved on. After all, Blind defended Van Gaal after the Dutch coach was dismissed, stating that the former Bayern, Barcelona and Ajax boss was treated in a disrespectful manner in the last six months of his tenure.
However, if nothing else Blind is deceptively tough. He was nearly sold to Groningen by Ajax before fighting his way back into the team at the Amsterdam Arena to become a vital player for the Dutch giants and the national team.
With Mourinho’s penchant for tall, physical central defenders the writing seemed to be on the wall with the Camp Nou and the San Siro mooted as possible destinations. Surprisingly though Blind has cemented his position along with Eric Bailly as first choice defender in United’s backline.
Blind is benefitting from more physically imposing players with Like Shaw, Bailly, Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini providing a screen for the Dutchman to play his natural game. Blind’s ability to break up play, read the game, shepherd opponents away from danger and distribute the ball from the back is standing him in good stead and is being fully utilised by Mourinho.
Against Bournemouth Blind did get an earful from his Portuguese boss for misplacing a pass to Ibrahimovic, but soon corrected his game much to Mourinho’s pleasure. Blind is the silk to Bailly’s steel and the stats for the first couple of league games appear to bear that out. Against Bournemouth Blind played a total of 61 passes to Bailly’s 41 though against Southampton the burden was more evenly spread with the Dutchman making 37 passes to the Ivorian’s 32. It’s telling that Blind is the man responsible for building up United’s play from the back and, as an interesting side note, received the captain’s armband when Wayne Rooney was subbed off.
The Dutchman is starring on the pitch and it’ll take a lot for Chris Smalling or potential new signing José Fonte to dislodge him.
Whisper it, the fuzzy haired Belgian has actually been quite good. He’s been moving the ball with minimum fuss and plenty of efficiency, doing his bit defensively and has complemented his more skillful midfield partners admirably.
Fellaini is not a universally loved figure; he is too closely associated with Moyes and Van Gaal, but nonetheless the midfielder possesses physical attributes that Mourinho values highly. Maybe then it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the Belgian international is starting for United and like Valencia he’s benefitting from Mourinho’s methods. Fellaini has a clearly defined role now insofar as using his strength to shield the back four and shuttle the ball quickly to his more gifted colleagues.
Too often he was used simply because he was an awkward opponent to play against hair, elbows et all. Right now there appears to be a more controlled aggression to his game coupled with tactical plan that he’s capable of fulfilling. Granted, its early days, but he’s making more successful tackles and increasingly breaking up opposition attacks under José’s tutelage. In keeping with Blind, Fellaini benefits from having dynamic players around him thus allowing him to concentrate on his strengths and providing the team with balance.
It’s amazing what a telephone call from José can do.
Few expected any hugs and kisses between Mata and Mourinho considering their history at Chelsea. When Mourinho took Mata off in the Community Shield after bringing on the Spaniard the obituaries for “Johnny Kills’” United career were being furiously written.
Talk of Mata departing United wasn’t entirely unfair, after all his new boss ushered him out of Chelsea when the Spaniard played for the London club. But for now that appears to be water under Stamford Bridge as Mourinho has entrusted Mata to play on the right hand side of a fluid attacking three. It has paid dividends, with the Spaniard scoring the first goal of Mourinho’s Premier League tenure with United.
Mata may be the beneficiary of Jesse Lingard’s unfortunate injury, but it says much that United’s number eight has been preferred to new recruit Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Mourinho elaborated as much stating that Lingard and Mata were “better options” for the opening games.
It has been reported that Mata has impressed Mourinho with his work rate and attitude, which does bode well for the diminutive playmaker. With this summer’s transfer window coming closer to an end it seems increasingly unlikely that Mata will be sold especially as United aren’t desperate to raise funds.
It says a lot about Mata’s professionalism and character that instead of seeking an immediate exit he knuckled down to fight for his place. It’s a quality that José won’t forget in a hurry.
The Fantastic Four?
Of course, it’s the embryonic stage of the Mourinho era, but there has already been a few surprises. On closer inspection the quartet’s redemption shouldn’t be as surprising as it first appears.
Mourinho would not have been as successful had he not been able to absorb harsh lessons. The Portuguese’s experience at Chelsea last season left him chastened and perhaps he’s learned to manage his players in a different manner.
There’s also the Europa League’s impact, with United required to play a lot of games this season. It doesn’t make sense for Mourinho to play the hatchet man just yet. The way he and United have approached the transfer window has been surprisingly efficient. From Mourinho’s point of view the squad needed augmenting and not overhauling and that attitude has benefitted players who were reportedly in danger of being shipped out.
Blind, Mata, Fellaini and Valencia are not the Fantastic Four, although it’s tempting to label the fuzzy haired Belgian “The Thing,” but they’ve earned their starting positions and could play an important role in United’s search for honours.
They are United’s unlikely lads.