Perhaps, in private, José Mourinho will admit that Manchester United’s performance at Arsenal last Sunday was one of relentless mediocrity. In public, of course, he said something very different, defending his players and bemoaning a heavy schedule. Yet, United remained competitive against Arsenal for no more than 15 minutes at the Emirates. Then the home side took charge, with two quick goals securing the points for a beleaguered Arsene Wenger. It was a performance that should stimulate plenty of scrutiny about the manager’s approach this season – not least in his management of a squad that contains a mix of players too shattered to be effective and those too rusty to impress.
From the dark days of three consecutive September defeats, to an unbeaten run few thought was possible, Manchester United’s big game manager is in full Mourinho Mode. Unforgiving, unrelenting and, now, unhindered by a rigid philosophy or game-plan, fighting on two fronts to reach next season’s Champions League.
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.
José Mourinho’s arrival at Manchester United last summer was met with excitement and skepticism in equal measure. Supporters raised questions not just about Mourinho’s style of play and its relevance, but the manager’s tendency to court controversy. Yet, Mourinho has demonstrated another quality – flexibility. It may be key as the season draws to a close.
Has Manchester United manager José Mourinho regressed into his bad cop routine just a little too early? The pattern is familiar, the one in which Dirty Harry challenges his punk players to try their luck. Just one more time. It begins with key players being ostracised in an increasingly public fashion, as if to distract from on-the-pitch failings, and ends with Mourinho leaving his post ignominiously, player power having won. Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Chelsea again. Bad cop gone bad. The red flags are many at Old Trafford as well. In the course of a week Mourinho launched into an astonishing and public attack on his creative players, before throwing youthful defender Luke Shaw under a lengthy bus. Yet, for all the concerns raised by Mourinho the man manager this week it is another pattern that is troubling the Portuguese coach most – the inability of his team to win games at Old Trafford. It will probably cost the club a place in next season’s Champions League.
Antonio Conte’s decision to adopt the 3-4-3 formation at Chelsea has been influential in the narrative of the Premier League season. While Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have stumbled over different formations and team selections, Conte has persisted with the shape that brought him so much success with Juventus and the Italian national team. Chelsea’s balance of defensive solidity, work ethic in midfield, and mercurial attacking talents have pushed the Londoners to within touching distance of the title.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss three Manchester United games after taking pointed retribution against Tyrone Mings at the weekend. The Swede’s swinging elbow was missed by referee Kevin Friend, but an FA panel found inevitable guilt in the 35-year-old’s violence. Yet, while the striker’s 26 goals in all competitions have been vital to United’s cause this season, there may be greater benefit from an enforced leave of absence.
Manchester United wasn’t in any mood for a song and dance at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on Wednesday. The Old Trafford club eased to a 1-0 win against their French opponents, Saint-Etienne – a victory attained at some cost, with Eric Bailly seeing red, and both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick collecting injuries.
It was bound to happen. Even the staunchest José Mourinho defendant understood that the Portuguese manager comes with a guarantee of friction in the dressing room. Some supporters were surprised that it happened so soon. Don’t be. It works.
“I think he’s doing really well,” noted Sir Alex Ferguson of José Mourinho’s start at Manchester United. “It’s not easy coming to United. It’s not easy to transform the club’s fortunes from my time. But I thought Louis van Gaal did a good job and I think José’s doing a great job.”