Manchester United might have staged an impressive, if not desperate, comeback against Newcastle United before the international break, but systematic changes are needed before any real progress can be made under José Mourinho.
What fans saw in the final 20 minutes of that match was desire and a sense of urgency, as well as a communal belief that they could turn this deficit around. For the best part of the season, those characteristic traits had been lacking from Man United’s players. It took a dire situation for those to finally come to the forefront of the players’ performances, but spectators were pleased to finally witness it and relieved that they are capable of producing such match-winning moments.
Mourinho has long been a pragmatist and Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, knew what he was getting when he decided to sign Mourinho and then subsequently give him a contract extension earlier this year until 2020. The Portuguese coach has won a decorated amount of silverware and was, at one point, considered the best manager on the planet.
However, to survive at Old Trafford, there must be redeeming qualities about how your team takes to the field. Winning trophies are important, but when you don’t have that success on your side, and Manchester United don’t right now, the style of football played before fans must be enjoyable. The spectators must see progression and entertaining football that makes them look forward to watch each weekend.
That, quite simply, is not the case under Mourinho. Even against what should be considered lesser opposition, the Red Devils are waiting for the opponent to make a mistake and lull them into a false sense of security. Only once this season, against Leicester City, has it worked successfully where United have walked away with the three points – and even that was rather fortuitous.
Against Brighton, Mourinho’s men sat too deep, allowed Chris Hughton’s players to come on to them relentlessly, and buckled magnificently at the Amex Stadium. There was no penetration from United’s attackers as they recorded another loss away from home to Brighton.
At too many times throughout Mourinho’s tenure have fans witnessed dull football that restricts the innovative talent from his own players, and instead makes them stick to a very constraint system that promotes a negative approach. While not every game are Manchester United expected to ‘attack, attack, attack’, the wider audience would appreciate Mourinho to shift his philosophy slightly in order to thwart the teams that are beneath them.
The likes of Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sánchez have endured poor form throughout Mourinho’s reign – which was not all the manager’s doing – but all three played a crucial part in United’s comeback against the Magpies. The interchanging passes between Martial and Pogba set-up the equalising goal scored by the former Monaco winger; while Sánchez netted the winner with a brilliant header just before full time that broke his duck of not scoring for the club since April.
There are good, talented players at Manchester United who are simply not achieving the level of performances they should be with the ability they possess. It’s not all Mourinho’s fault or management, but especially for the attacking players, it makes matters more difficult when the brand of football being played stifles those who use freedom of expression as tool to get the better of their opposition.
If Mourinho is to last in this job – and history suggests that he will not be hanging around for too much longer – then he needs to relax his pragmatist approach and allow some of his players the ability to become more creative. Instead of a very rigid and strict system, the Portuguese coach could deploy a different formation which enables Pogba to be given more time on the ball to dictate possession.
When the masterstroke of a tactic was played at half time against Newcastle which saw the French World Cup winner move deeper, practically alongside two centre backs, Pogba was given more space and time to pick out passes for his attackers. Of course, the Frenchman does not always want to play from so far back, but allowing him to play his game saw United stage a famous comeback.
Mourinho deserved credit for that second half performance and he would be wildly more popular and revered if he was to show that side of his management on a regular basis.
Manchester United enter a run of games that are going to test their resolve after the international break, with an away game at Stamford Bridge fast approaching. After Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea, United play: Juventus, Everton, Bournemouth, Juventus and Manchester City in less than a month.
No one is expecting Mourinho to abandon his philosophy completely that made him so successful, but especially in these matches, he should experiment in playing a more offensively-inclined team. There is no need to be so expansive that they continue to be picked off, but there is also no merit in sitting so deep in your own half that you warrant the opposition continually attacking you. With the quality these teams have in their ranks, it will be a question of when not if they score.
Mourinho has salvaged his job for the mean time, but this run of fixtures has all sorts of bumps on the way. If the former Real Madrid manager wants to, more importantly, turn his reputation around and, in turn, save his job for the long term, he needs to promote a positive brand of football that excites United’s fans.
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