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.”
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.
Sometimes it’s just not meant to be. Despite the best intentions the relationship just doesn’t work, the pieces just don’t fit, there’s a square peg in a round hole. It’s an apt description for Morgan Schneiderlin’s time at Manchester United, which is coming to a low-key end as he metaphorically slips out the back door – a transfer away from Old Trafford is likely this winter.
Juan Mata’s recent years in the Premier League have been an enigma. While successful, the Spaniard has often appeared to be a square peg in a round hole. Somehow, and with great credit, the Spaniard has made his time at Manchester United work. The player’s style is unrecognisable from his time at Chelsea and Valencia, with his defensive workrate significantly improved, making Mata both more useful, and more modern.
Manchester United’s season has been one of frustrating but gradual improvement under José Mourinho’s stewardship. Little by little the last vestiges of Louis van Gaal’s philosophy is being chipped away, to be replaced with a style of football that’s more in-keeping with the demands of United supporters.