In his stellar career in management Jose Mourinho has built sides with a range of contrasting styles, ranging from the rapier thrust of his Real Madrid and early Chelsea teams to the power and efficiency he instilled at Internazionale and in perhaps his most complete Stamford Bridge unit. Despite being an eternal pragmatist, the Portuguese coach has always tweaked his approach depending upon the resources at his disposal and the expectations at any given club. He is more flexible when he wants to be than many have given him credit for. However, despite the diversity of approaches utilised, Mourinho teams have always shared key characteristics. Hard work and sacrifice has been a given, whilst the value of the team carries far greater importance than the needs of the individual. There has always been an identifiable plan, a blueprint of what each of his sides were trying to achieve. It may not have always been pretty, but there was clear method and by the second season a functioning high-level unit had been formed which, from Porto until his last spell at Chelsea always won the title. The subject matter may have been different but ultimately Mourinho always produced a masterpiece. Until now.
There few more enthralling and engaging sights than your football team recovering from a deficit and winning a game in injury time with a thirty-yard screamer. That roller-coaster of emotion is why we adore football so and why it is the world’s most popular game. It is that pleasure which Manchester United fans were able to soak in at Selhurst Park, as Nemanja Matic’s delicious dipping shot beat Wayne Hennessey at the death to complete a comeback from 2-0 down and collect three absolutely vital Premier League points in the battle for Champions League qualification. With the gap to Chelsea in fifth now standing at nine points that outcome is becoming increasingly likely. There was much about that last half an hour or so in South-East London that was classic Mourinho, from the ratcheting up of the pressure as the half wore on to the intelligent and highly effective substitutions and tactical tweaks which helped to turn the game. On the face of it this was a dominant physical unit overpowering a wounded opponent through sheer force of will and individual talent.
And yet the rousing finish at Palace was merely a glimpse of the Mourinho of old in a match and season which have been entirely out of character. After a dogged first season in which Champions League qualification was paramount, the ends justified the means. United rarely functioned as a unit and were to a degree fortunate that their path to winning the Europa League brought relatively comfortable draws. Regardless, the ‘Special One’ got the job done as he so often has in the past. The second season was supposed to be different. Perhaps not, for once, title winning different, for this job is perhaps his biggest ever challenge. The United he inherited were an ailing, broken unit. But with two years’ worth of his own signings in place the team was expected to take the leap from stodgy and inconsistent to a coherent unit, with an obvious direction and approach. Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp inherited unbalanced, weak squads mired in mid-table at Spurs and Liverpool respectively and both took time to instill their ideas whilst endeavouring to strengthen their lineups. Within twelve to eighteen months their philosophies had been instilled, results had improved dramatically and they had a clear direction of travel, on and off the pitch. Both have created exciting teams full of energy and endeavour, creating an aesthetically pleasing visual at clubs now performing above their economic potential. There is a clear vision at both.
At United Mourinho can rightly point to an improved Premier League showing in statistical terms. The team has lifted itself from sixth at the end of last season to their current second place. A win over Sevilla in the Champions League would see the club achieving roughly par on their return to Europe’s top competition. But football is about more than raw data. The first 50-55 minutes at Selhurst Park were the easiest Palace, missing twelve players through injury and suspension and starting the evening in the relegation zone, will have had all season. Roy Hodgson will have noted United’s ongoing struggles against teams who play with energy and tempo, are direct and give them little time on the ball. Mourinho’s team may still be a work in progress, but it’s vastly expensive front six (four of whom were his purchases) are simply incapable of controlling the tempo of games, particularly away from home. What’s more, the back four remain vulnerable, indecisive and wretched on the ball. Palace exploited those weaknesses to perfection.
The result was a team with the talents of Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez and Nemanja Matic unable to retain possession or complete consecutive passes in key areas of the pitch. A sluggish, appalling first half has been a recurring theme for much of the season and it has cost United precious points as City disappeared over the horizon. In a more general sense the lack of tempo control has often made games fraught affairs. David De Gea has made more saves this season than all but one Premier League goalkeeper and it was he who made a remarkable stop to deny Christian Benteke with Monday’s game in the balance at 2-2. A truly great goalkeeper can, to a degree, mask a multitude of sins.
But by far the most concerning aspect about the performance and much of the season, was the total absence of a visible plan, particularly in the first half of games. What is Mourinho’s vision for United? In attacking areas there is little movement and a dearth of coherence against a compact, organised back four. It is in the final third where coaching can make the biggest difference. As Palace tired in the second half and the game became stretched the individual talent that the team possesses began to tell, but until then this was a clueless, almost embarrassing performance. Romelu Lukaku has improved significantly in recent weeks, a fact demonstrated by his composed finish to level the game, but United struggle to get the ball to him in dangerous areas. The signing of Alexis Sanchez only appears to have worsened the problem. Anthony Martial had been hitting some form on the left of the attack but found the Chilean suddenly occupying his spot, so far without much success. Mourinho appears to be grappling with what to do with his new star and again he moved him in behind the striker, to no greater effect. This team appears to be stuck in quicksand, good enough individually to get out of trouble against wounded teams (as against Chelsea the weekend before), but the better opponents offer them little such charity.
In three months’ time Mourinho will have completed two full seasons at United, having signed eight players in an attempt to upgrade and enhance his squad. There is no doubt that the spine of the team is stronger than that which he inherited. With better players one would expect an upturn in results, which has happened to a degree, and also the development of a team identity, which most definitely hasn’t. This is neither an effective counter-attacking side nor one comfortable in possession. It appears to rely on the full backs for width, but neither are offering it effectively. It tries to play through the middle, but players are occupying the same spaces and simply running into a defensive wall. The comebacks in the last two games demonstrate that the squad has character, but cohesion and, at times, basic technical competence is missing. It is genuinely difficult to think of one fluid, close to ninety-minute performance all season. The best this writer could come up with is West Ham at home. On the first day of the Premier League season. Frankly, this team is absolutely awful to watch. It offends the footballing senses. Adam Crafton of the Daily Mail opined on Twitter after the Palace game that, “ (This is) one of those performances where you watch a team play and wonder what it is exactly they worked on the previous week in training”. This echoes claims made by other writers that the manager does little offensive coaching.The truth is that the football is dreadful for large chunks of most games, and until Mourinho successfully develops a coherent unit with direction and variation in its play the idea that United might bridge the quality gap to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team is pie in the sky. The late glimpse of the Portuguese impacting a game with tactical nous at Selhurst Park has become the exception, rather than the norm and with free scoring Liverpool heading to Old Trafford this weekend, simply hoping for the best could doom United to failure.