José Mourinho’s men might have orchestrated a famous victory in Turin against Juventus just before the international break, but they also suffered a crippling defeat to across-town rivals Manchester City in what was a lifeless display.
This season has been tumultuous at best for the Red Devils and their inconsistency has been born out of a lack of identity. It seems as if every three days they are refreshing their philosophy of the way they want to play and not attempting to adopt a style that suits them week in, week out.
It is clear that Chelsea, under Maurizio Sarri, have a possession-based footballing identity, as do Man City under Pep Guardiola, whereas Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool are more about the punch and ferociousness of the attack after dispossessing the opposition high up the pitch. Arsenal are starting to find form under Unai Emery, who is slowly starting to implement a more creative and free-flowing Arsenal, while Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs have arguably the best team chemistry in the Premier League.
That leaves Manchester United out of the top six without a clear identity. When they take to the field, it is always in a pragmatic sense. There are times when pragmatism is useful, as Mourinho has shown through his celebrated career in Europe, but United fans, and players, have been brought up on an attacking style that has suited them from the first day Sir Alex Ferguson took charge until his last.
Of course, with a new manager after such a long time at the helm there would have to be change. And there was, with David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, but they both failed in their respective work and were not enigmatic enough for the job. Mourinho has the charisma and personality, as well as the big-game performances in his locker, but the Portuguese coach needs to find his own identity at the club that appeases the fans as well.
When the Red Devils took on Brighton & Hove Albion earlier this season, it was case in point over United’s clear lack of direction. Players were abandoning their post and all sense of responsibility, with Brighton playing in second gear and carving them apart with absolute ease. It was a training exercise at times and the Seagulls were in total control.
Similarly, last season, against Sevilla in the Champions League round of 16, Mourinho had the chance to take the game to the Spaniards in the second leg after drawing 0-0 away from home. Instead of playing on the front foot, once again, United were idle in possession and allowed the Spaniards to dictate the game. At no point under Ferguson would that have been allowed and, as a result, it cost United their place in the Champions League after a whimpering performance that they lost 2-1.
Sevilla were not the better team on paper and Manchester United should have dispatched of them with relative ease. Vincenzo Montella was later sacked for his defensive ineptitude, but United failed to find that out due to their stagnant approach. With 70,000 cheering on the Red Devils, it was a punch to the stomach to witness Mourinho so timid in attack and without the ability to alter the game.
No one is realistically expecting Man United to match City’s excellence game by game, because they simply do not have the same quality, but it is expected that United should be on the front foot against the ‘lesser’ teams in the Premier League such as Brighton. With no disrespect intended to Chris Hughton’s team, but the way United folded against the Seagulls was an embarrassment of the highest order.
It must be said that United’s recruitment has been poor and Mourinho does have a leg to stand on when addressing his issues with the centre back position after Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, ignored his request of signing a new player last summer.
Although United’s squad looks short of quality compared to some of their top four rivals, it should not give Mourinho the mandate to roll over and deploy a negative strategy.
Manchester United still have quality within their ranks and Anthony Martial is a prime example of what happens when the shackles are removed and Mourinho allows freedom to enter their attacking play. After getting back on good terms with the Portuguese coach, the France international has six Premier League goals in his last seven appearances, practically winning games on his own.
By all accounts, it appears Mourinho will last until the end of the season unless the team have an absolute meltdown. But if the former Chelsea title-winning manager wants to remain in charge for the foreseeable future, he simply must adopt a philosophy that gets United’s fans on the edge of their seats and something to cheer for. Without it, United are the most predictable team in the league and these one-off triumphs will not hold any weight.
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