Jose Mourinho has come under intense scrutiny but Man Utd’s improvement under his leadership should encourage the club’s supporters.
Everything finally came together for Mourinho and Manchester United on Wednesday night, even if the boss wasn’t in the dug out to see it. The display against West Ham was a throwback to the attacking, fast-paced football United fans had become accustomed to before David Moyes and Louis van Gaal were given the keys to the manager’s office.
United’s display, though, was not a one-off. At Old Trafford, they have played in a similar manner on numerous occasions when their good work was undone by profligate finishing. In securing a place in the EFL Cup semi-final, the Red Devils finally showed the ruthlessness that has been missing.
Mourinho was delighted to see his side rewarded with goals, but the manager was not panicking, and nor should anyone else. Following their poorest start to the season since 1990-91, in terms of points at least, questions have already been asked whether the Portuguese was the right man for the job. In the six months since he was appointed to what was a desperately difficult job, Mourinho has shown enough to earn the trust of his board and the United supporters.
Fewer points, far more style
United have been playing on the front foot since the start of the season, and Mourinho is known to be far less concerned about United’s attacking deficiencies than their defensive frailties. Compared to the dull, regimented, side-to-side football Van Gaal inflicted upon United fans, and the hopeless leadership of Moyes, what United are currently serving up is a vast improvement.
Aside from anecdotal evidence from match-going reds, the stats back up that statement. United have had an average of 17 shots per game this season (fourth highest in the Premier League) in comparison to 11 last term – 15th in the division. At home, they perform even better compared to their rivals, with only Liverpool having more shots overall and more shots on target in front of their home fans.
It was said so often last season that United fans would accept mixed results so long as the performances matched the style so often associated with the club down the years. The season so far has tested those claims, but at Old Trafford, the majority are content with the progress they are witnessing.
A lot of negativity in press towards mourinho but as a fan I'm enjoying the football again if not the results but they will come.Up the reds
— MATTYREDMAN (@mattyredman) November 28, 2016
Oh and as has been the case even in all the draws, so much better than the Football of the last few years. Just took the chances today.
— Karate Jesus (@KarateJesus44) November 30, 2016
As frustrating as the results are, it's miles better than the last few years. They need to start rewarding themselves though. #mufc
— Chris Wood (@ChrisMUFC08) November 27, 2016
Searching for the right formula
One of the accusations so often levelled against Mourinho is that he doesn’t know his best XI. Given we are only a third of the way into his debut season, is that really surprising?
Mourinho has chopped and changed, not for the sake of it, but because usually, the players trusted to perform have failed to do so. The players should take the blame for that.
The Portuguese has very high standards and a low tolerance for those who fail to meet them. When offered a place in Mourinho’s XI, too many United players have failed to justify why they should keep it. Some have performed to the expected level, and the rewards have followed for the likes of Antonio Valencia, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Yes, Ibrahimovic. The Swedish star has registered 11 goals and three assists in 20 appearances, yet for some observers, that hasn’t been enough. Of course, the veteran could have more goals under his belt already having averaged five shots per game, but he is on course to hit 20 Premier League goals, which would make him the first player in the post-Ferguson era to do so. Finally, United have a pivot striker who can score goals and play his part in laying them on too.
Mourinho’s trust in Ibrahimoivc is clear and given their history, it is no surprise that the manager rates his recruit so highly. But another of his summer additions is having to work far harder to earn it.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan went missing after a dire first-half debut in the Manchester derby on September 10. Mourinho was persistently questioned about the Armenian’s absence and the manager’s response was always that the former Borussia Dortmund playmaker was not yet ready for the pace and ferocity of the Premier League – his debut certainly backed up that theory.
After his performances over the last week, with two starts earning Mkhitaryan a couple of Man of the Match awards, many have questioned Mourinho’s exclusion of last season’s Bundesliga Player of the Season. But maybe we’re about to see that the manager handled this one just right.
Creativity certainly hasn’t been United’s problem this term and if Mourinho believed Mkhitaryan was off the pace, then he was justified in leaving him out until he was ready. Mkhitaryan, publicly at least, has handled the test extremely well and his resolve will doubtless have impressed the manager, who is said to have been frustrated at the lack of mental strength running through the squad he inherited.
Anthony Martial is another to be tested by Mourinho, with the manager commenting that the France forward had wasted three chances to impress before being left out of the Premier League draw with West Ham last weekend. Martial was warned and he took on the Hammers on Wednesday night with a renewed vigour not seen from him for some time.
Confrontational style required
It was reported earlier this week that Mourinho was frustrated by the culture in place at Old Trafford and that the boss was upsetting people around the club. Is that not his job?
Since Ferguson’s departure, United have certainly allowed standards to slip. Two managers have taken the fall when the club’s problems clearly ran deeper than two individuals. In many ways, they were being left for dust by their noisy neighbours, who took full advantage of United’s malaise to install themselves as Manchester’s top dogs.
Jose has unlikable traits, makes mistakes, hell even a great like Fergie did. It wasn't all roses then. Both are bastards and winners. Good!
— Barney @Red News (@barneyrednews) November 28, 2016
When he was appointed, Mourinho was a serial winner going into a club living on its former glories. He was appointed to shake things up and ruffle a few feathers, not just among the playing staff, but throughout the staff. If that has ‘upset people’ then those individuals might be best advised to look for alternative employment.
The same can be said of some of his players. The squad has had a weak underbelly, from those using Ferguson’s exit as an excuse to take their foot off the gas, to others recruited since who were spoon-fed everything by Van Gaal. Too many stars have escaped scrutiny because all eyes have been on the dug-out. Mourinho recruited not just big names but big personalities too in Ibrahimovic and Pogba, and there are certainly some players who are now looking over their shoulder where once they were cruising, including captains Rooney and Chris Smalling.
Mourinho has used both the carrot and stick approach, though the stick has been out more often than the manager might have liked. His frustration has often been clear, not just at the inadequcies of his charges but also the factors he cannot affect – refereeing decisions and injuries for example.
But even though he has been sent to the stand twice already, United fans are just relieved to see signs of life from the dugout. For the last three years, they have had to see either the anguish of Moyes on the touchline or the lifeless Van Gaal, clutching on to his file like a child clings on to a blankie.
Mourinho is making compromises
Mourinho knew there were things he would have to compromise on when he finally got the United job. As he has admitted, he is reining in some of his more natural instincts to construct a team capable of entertaining and upholding the values so often associated with the club.
“I’ve never had a team with so much possession, I’ve never had a team with so much creation, I’ve never had a team who create so many chances.
But, also, I’ve never had a team with so many draws. I want this beautiful team to win more matches and, for that, they need to score goals like they did today.
Every manager has his ideas and also the players can help you – or not help you – to make a certain style of play. This is what we proposed ourselves at Manchester United.
“One of the things I proposed to myself was to come to such a club like Manchester United who play the kind of football that people want, because it’s Manchester United’s tradition, so I’m really happy with that.
Yes, it was a more humble Mourinho who walked through the door at Old Trafford after his disaster of a final season at Chelsea, though the supreme confidence and arrogance remains. So it should. Such characteristics are a large part of the reason he has been so successful.
But the manager has showed he is willing to be open, flexible and modest if required. He has mounted quite a charm offensive towards the United fans, never missing an opportunity to praise their support and even apologising to the Stretford End for the 4-0 thumping at Chelsea.
With his squad, he is very firm but usually fair, despite some of the deadwood remaining where it was when he stumbled upon it in the summer.
His U-turn over Bastian Schweinsteiger offers hope to any player not getting a look in – Memphis Depay, for example. Though Schweinsteiger’s comeback may just be a way to offer proof of life to anyone who might be tempted to take the German in January, the manager was adamant in the summer that the World Cup winner had kicked his final ball for United. The Mourinho of old may have been too stubborn to go back on his word.
And that’s a trait that has got Mourinho into trouble before. Whenever the tide looked like it might be turning against him, the boss went to war and it always resulted in the same outcome. While it may be a stretch to say Mourinho has mellowed, he is certainly more diplomatic, which may be crucial to prove wrong the critics who say he is incapable of building for the long-term at any club.
Realigning United’s priorities
Mourinho’s arrival and the money spent on Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly saw United immediately installed as title contenders before a ball was kicked. But the scale of the job Mourinho tok on is now considerably clearer, and it seems certain that the Premier League title will be beyond the Red Devils this year.
The top four is certainly desirable, though what would be gained by sacking Mourinho should he finish fifth? The manager has said it will take at least three transfer windows before he has a squad he is satisfied with and no one will know more about what is required come next summer than the current boss, regardless of where United complete the campaign.
As long as the performances continue in the same vein and the results follow a similarly improving trajectory, then Mourinho is entitled to sit a more comfortably than his critics believe he should be.