José Mourinho bought himself some time as manager of Manchester United after his team staged an impressive second half comeback to win 3-2 against Newcastle United at Old Trafford. It might not have been pretty, and the first 60 minutes were totally uninspiring, but United, somehow, bucked up their ideas in order to finish the match with the three points.
If the Red Devils were to lose that match, which would have been Newcastle’s first win of the season, it’s fair to say that Mourinho would have been relieved of his duties. Such were the stakes of this game, United could not have gone five games without a win in all competitions. At that point, his position would become untenable.
However, one win doesn’t change the current perception of Mourinho. Majority of fans still believe he must be let go of and the club must tack in a different direction. Old Trafford expects attacking football and they have every right to be entertained.
While Sir Alex Ferguson, at times, when he needed to, played tentatively, more often than not, against lesser opposition, his teams would usually go for the jugular and score a handful of goals. Mourinho isn’t that type of manager – which is what Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, knew – but fans want to see some sort of compromise, especially if his methods aren’t working.
In the final 20 minutes of Manchester United’s most recent match, when they found themselves 2-0 down, the shackles were finally lifted and the players started to express themselves. Anthony Martial flourishes in a free-flowing attack, and once again looked bright and busy in the opposition’s final third when given the opportunity to showcase his talents.
The interchanging play between Paul Pogba and Martial, the French axis, was swift and effective, breaking Newcastle’s midfield up and creating space in behind their defence. After Juan Mata’s first goal – which was a breathtaking free-kick goal on the edge of the area – Martial scored the equaliser after classy combination play with his compatriot Pogba. The former Monaco starlet received the ball on the edge of the box from a Pogba back heel, dribbled closer to goal and stuck the ball sweetly past Martin Dúbravka into the bottom corner. The noise erupted from all areas of Old Trafford as the fans were given a glimpse of what these players can genuinely do with the ball when allowed to.
Part of United’s resurgence in the second half was down to Mata’s influence in possession. Although David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and now Mourinho play the Spaniard down the right wing, the former Spain international’s best position is as a number 10. Playing just off the centre forward, Mata can dictate matches and use his precision passing in tight spaces. He is not blessed for pace and constantly cuts inside when deployed on the right, so it seems reductive to continue to play him there when United’s right wing is therefore being negated from their own personnel choices.
Mata wasn’t initially picked by Mourinho at the beginning of this game, but came on after 19 minutes for central defender Eric Bailly. The Portuguese boss evidently saw patterns of play forming against his team and thought Mata was the solution for the comeback his team needed to complete. With 60 touches of the ball in 70 minutes, Mata played one key pass and had a passing percentage of 91% – one of the highest on the pitch. The Spaniard’s ability to score free-kicks, just as he did in this match, is a fantastic string to United’s bow, and should be used more.
There is no denying that Mata can drift in and out of matches, but so can anyone. He is not a world-class number 10, but he’s United’s only true attacking midfielder that can genuinely dictate and influence matches. Jesse Lingard is usually deployed as the third midfielder, playing just behind the front three, but the Englishman is now injured, as well as having not scored since January. The goal drought is haunting him somewhat, so some time out of the team might well just reinvigorate his performances.
United are always going to struggle if Mourinho keeps on with this negative and pragmatic approach that he loves. It has won him unprecedented success so far in his career, but the former Chelsea boss needs to reduce the strict instructions he gives his teams, especially against lesser opposition home and away. The Red Devils showed what they can do when playing with freedom, something the fans truly appreciated and enjoyed.
Mata can help United play on the front foot, if he is to be trusted by his manager. The Spaniard has the quality at his disposal and the ability to drive his team forward, but he simply must be allowed to play in a fluid system where the forwards are constantly interchanging with one another. At that point, just like in the last 20 minutes against the Magpies, will you see the best of this Manchester United side.
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