Few managers subscribe to the adage, “attack wins you games, but defence wins you championships”, quite like arch-pragmatist Jose Mourinho.
Over his 15-year managerial career at the top level, Mourinho has followed an organised and efficient approach – often at the behest of entertainment – but it’s one which has gathered him numerous trophies across four major leagues.
There are coaches who can do it all, win trophies and oversee free-flowing football – one of them is stationed down the road in Manchester – but Mourinho manfully continues in the only way he knows how; building what he believes will be a title-winning team from the back.
But if you’re selecting a player to symbolise the team under Mourinho so far, it’s unfortunately David de Gea. No outfield player has matched the Spaniard’s consistency in the post-Fergie era.
The Red Devils finished the campaign with the second-best defence in the league (conceding just 28 times) while De Gea topped the standings for clean sheets (18). However, there is much to suggest that Mourinho’s side got a little lucky with their defensive record, as our friends at Football Whispers have discovered.
United ranked sixth-highest for shots conceded per (11.5), De Gea made the sixth-most saves (114), with the next-best placed top-six keeper Arsenal’s Petr Cech in 12th (86). They also possessed the biggest differential between their xG conceded (43.54) and their actual goals conceded – the opposition scored 15.54 fewer goals than they should have done when facing United.
The mark of a good backline isn’t just how few goals you concede, it’s also about eliminating risk. Too often United looked like conceding in games they should have been controlling.
Mourinho is stubborn and satisfied in his own self-interest to the point of caricature. But he still recognises that, to get better, his team need to improve defensively.
Despite a well-stocked central defensive unit of Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, it’s unclear which should be his preferred pairing moving forward and that has only been brought into sharper focus by reports Atletico Madrid hardman Diego Godin is a Manchester United transfer target.
Bailly and Lindelof
Both signed by Mourinho, Bailly and Lindelof have the potential to be United’s defensive partnership in the years ahead.
Lindelof, 23, is an old-fashioned defender who uses his physicality, wins headers and makes blocks. He doesn’t necessarily have to be trusted as a ball-playing centre-back and is content with handling the nitty-gritty.
Unfortunately, his first season in the Premier League exposed some positional deficiencies where he was caught up the pitch or dragged wide by attacking players. That is where Bailly steps in as the Ivorian has the speed across short distances to cover the Swede’s mistakes.
Neither played significant minutes in the Premier League last season – Lindelof (1,284) and Bailly (1,000) – but offer the best balance in terms of styles. However, their partnership would need time to develop.
Although Lindelof’s game time was limited to just 12 league starts last season, his World Cup displays with Sweden offered sufficient evidence that he can become a stalwart in the United defence.
Bailly and Smalling
If Lindelof’s struggles continue, then Smalling is the best like-for-like replacement in size and skillset.
Despite his faults and occasional lapses in concentration, he is a safe pair of hands and a competent man-marker against more physically-dominating forwards.
As his omission from Gareth Southgate’s England squad displays, he isn’t a pass-heavy centre-back and is more a traditional blocker, which would then give Bailly that duty.
However, errors still blight Smalling’s game and, at 29, there is an argument that his best years are either coming to an end, or already behind him.
Jones put his myriad injury issues behind him to make 23 Premier League starts last season, his most in a season since 2011/12 when he arrived at Old Trafford from Blackburn and was, relatively speaking, United’s best defender.
However, while clearly a strong defender, there is a perception that Jones falls short of being an elite-level option.
Smalling and Lindelof
Injury ravaged Bailly’s second season at the club, and while he possesses immense potential, two semi-serious injuries to his knee and ankle cast doubt over his ability to negotiate a full fixture schedule.
In the event of another length absence for the 24-year-old, who has reported back for pre-season in excellent shape, then the combination of Smalling and Lindelof can give United plenty of aerial presence and athleticism across the back four.
Lindelof would have to be the distributor from deep but, as we know, Mourinho’s style of play doesn’t rely heavily on defenders having to step into midfield. Either can challenge the high ball, with one holding back to sweep.
There is, based on their previous work, considerable scope for mistakes, which doesn’t generate great confidence but, if he can build on a strong showing in Russia, Lindelof can have enjoy a significantly more settled sophomore year at Old Trafford.
Concentration, communication and understanding are the key and having been in Manchester for a year now, it carries that balance of inexperience and experience, with one able to learn off of the other.
It’s Mourinho’s job to coax it out of them and ensure United’s defence is of the requisite standard to develop into a credible title-challenging team.