Is José Mourinho the man to fix Manchester United?
A focus on the defence is just a distraction – the real issue is the lack of goals
Manchester United’s Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho after his team’s defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. Photograph: Getty Images
José Mourinho may point to how all three of Tottenham’s goals were down to errors in his rearguard and use this as evidence of why he wanted an elite centre-back this summer. Yet closer examination makes a case that the manager himself is culpable for the leaky defence against Spurs and that its past record shows this should not be a problem department. Ander Herrera played Tottenham onside for Lucas Moura’s first goal, having been a Mourinho selection in an unfamiliar centre-back role in an (also new) 3-3-3-1. And what good has Mourinho’s public pursuit of a new centre-half done to the confidence of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling? Harry Kane outjumped Jones and Smalling was undone by Lucas’s trickery for the Brazilian’s second goal. Jones and Smalling have been an integral part of United conceding the second-fewest Premier League goals in each of the manager’s two seasons, improving from 29 to 28. A focus on the defence is a distraction – the real issue is the lack of goals: only 54 and 68.
Who’s responsible? The manager for chasing the red herring of a new centre-back with his own signings in the position, Victor Lindelöf and Eric Bailly, again out of favour.
Can Mourinho fix it? Yes, by reverting to what made United so solid over the past two years and placing more focus on the attack.
Be inventive again
The fielding of a 3-3-3-1 shape failed but was a refreshing move from a manager often accused of being outmoded. It showed Mourinho’s courage via a willingness to innovate in a match he needed to win. He failed in that respect and so the obvious questions are why he had not tried the system in pre-season and why Herrera operated as a right-sided centre-back for the first time? At elite level gambles such as these have to work – Pep Guardiola’s use of Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko as left-backs last season did not backfire so no scrutiny ensued – but it does not mean Mourinho should shy away from any future blue-sky thinking.
Who’s responsible? The manager.
Can Mourinho fix it? Yes – if he is courageous enough to think laterally again to increase the chance of posing the opposition a different problem.
Monday was the latest illustration of why the Frenchman’s career at United remains enigmatic. This time Pogba was fielded on the right of the three-man midfield when considered wisdom is he prefers the left. As stated, there is nothing wrong with experimentation and the stance Mourinho has previously taken – that Pogba should be able to operate anywhere centrally – is accepted. Yet against Spurs the 25-year-old was again patchy, which followed his dismal outing at Brighton. Mourinho is correct to keep persisting with Pogba but must be tearing his hair out at a potential world-beater’s inconsistency.
Who’s responsible? Pogba. All true elite players are self-motivators who will drag every last ounce of quality from their talent.
Can Mourinho fix it? He can help by impressing on the player what regrets Pogba might have if he never fulfils his potential but this is one for the midfielder, ultimately.
Improve media relations
The point is not whether journalists should be spoken to curtly – as they were before and after the Spurs game by Mourinho – because this can be part of the trade’s rough and tumble. What matters, though, is how descending relations affect the only entity that should concern any manager: his team. Players would not be human if they did not look at Mourinho’s (seeming) determination to be icy with the press and pick up on their manager’s negative energy and be imbued with this. At his pre- and post-match briefings he hardly bounced along like a supremely confident manager enjoying total control of his working orbit. From the moment he declared pre-season as “very bad” in Los Angeles the Mourinho message has been uninspiring and this is also not what fans wish to hear.
Who’s responsible? Mourinho.
Can Mourinho fix it? Sure – by remembering how only he controls the mood and discourse each time he walks into a press room or speaks into a microphone.
Reconnect with players/fans
As well as the willingness to send out a fresh formation, another positive of the defeat by Spurs was how Mourinho reacted in its immediate aftermath. Instead of striding away instantly as he often does, the manager headed for Luke Shaw to gee him up in defeat, later saying he told the left-back how well he played. Considering how Mourinho has been a serial critic of the 23-year-old, here was an act that offered a welcome counter-balance and Shaw will surely respond to it. Moments later Mourinho was at the Stretford End applauding those supporters who remained and were clapping the side despite defeat. Both the Shaw man-management and pause to recognise the backing can only boost morale with two key constituencies – players and fans – and may in turn help revitalise a man who later rather erroneously demanded “respect, respect, respect” for his three Premier League titles. This is another MacGuffin: Mourinho will always correctly command great esteem for a phenomenal record. But the clock now ticks to over three years and counting since his last domestic championship. What matters is the here and now.
Who is responsible? Mourinho.
Can Mourinho fix it? Yes – why not stop and clap fans (home and away) and publicly congratulate any players who deserve it more often? - Guardian service