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Ken Early: Jose Mourinho’s team building pays off for United

‘The hard part is not finding the talent. The hard part is persuading the talent to sign’

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho explains to Juan Mata why he was taking him off in stoppage time after he came on as a substitute in the Community Shield win over Leicester City at Wembley. Photograph: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty Images

For 80 minutes, José Mourinho’s Manchester United looked a lot like Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United. They had a lot of possession, very little penetration, and were looking uncomfortable against the pacy counterattacks of Leicester City.

Then Antonio Valencia lofted in a speculative cross from the right, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic got there ahead of Wes Morgan to head the winner past Kasper Schmeichel.

It was the sort of goal United probably wouldn’t have scored last season. They did have one player – Marouane Fellaini – who might have been capable of scoring the same goal, but Fellaini doesn’t find himself attacking the six yard box quite as often as Ibrahimovic.

It was an early example of the benefits of Mourinho’s functional team-building. Analyse the team, identify the problems, bring in players with the right kind of characteristics to solve them. What could be more simple?

When he arrived at Chelsea in 2013 he decided that Chelsea lacked power and creativity in midfield, and missed too many chances up front. Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa arrived and Chelsea won the league. Taking over at Manchester United he found a slow, low-scoring team built around an aging midfield. So he signed superstar centre forward Zlatan, and all-round attacking speedster Henrikh Mkhitaryan.


Team building

To rejuvenate the stale midfield he has pursued Paul Pogba, one of the world’s highest-rated young midfielders, for a record fee. Meanwhile one slow midfielder, Bastian Schweinsteiger, was told he had no future at the club, while another, Juan Mata, was subbed off at Wembley half an hour after coming on as a substitute.

When team building is done like this it looks easy. Clear thinking, clear execution, clear improvement. Of course, it’s not as though other managers are incapable of clear thinking or strategic planning.

David Moyes, for instance, put a great deal of thought into the business of signing players. Michael Calvin’s 2013 book on scouting, The Nowhere Men, described the “recruitment room” at Everton where Moyes and his staff kept tabs on about 1,000 potential signings, using a series of colour-coded whiteboards. Moyes’s attention to detail would lead him to demand up to 50 scouting reports on a single transfer target.

At the rarefied level inhabited by Manchester United and a handful of other European superclubs, all that sort of stuff is redundant. Ibrahimovic scored 50 goals for PSG last season. Mkhitaryan scored or assisted 49 for Dortmund. Pogba has won four Serie A titles by the age of 23. You don’t need a stack of scouting reports to know that these are the type of players that can improve your team.

At United’s level, the hard part is not finding the talent. The hard part is persuading the talent to sign. And for that, you don’t need whiteboards, colour-coding or scouting reports. You need good relationships with the key agents.

In the past Mourinho has signed a lot of big players through his own agent, Jorge Mendes. This summer, he’s been working mainly through Mino Raiola. Alex Ferguson disliked Raiola, but Mourinho’s more cordial relationship with the agent has delivered Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, and, eventually, Pogba.

Big deal

“Something big is happening in our team,” Ibrahimovic declared after yesterday’s match. We can also say that something big is happening in Mino Raiola’s bank account. Pogba was said to be tempted by the prospect of joining Real Madrid, but Raiola persuaded him that United would be the best option. His commission on the deal is reported to be in excess of €20 million, or about as much as the champions, Leicester, have spent on their biggest signing so far this summer, Ahmed Musa.

There was a period in the second half at Wembley when Leicester looked the more likely winners, as Musa and Demarai Gray showed terrific pace in support of Jamie Vardy. But Jesse Lingard’s first-half goal was a reminder of why this year will probably be difficult for them.

It started when Wayne Rooney’s sideways pass in midfield tempted Andy King into an unfortunate misjudgment. He rushed forward and lunged into an attempted interception, but he arrived a split second too late. Lingard let the ball run past King’s lunge, then darted forward into the inviting space that had opened up through the heart of the Leicester midfield.

Lingard did well to get past two more challenges, but he was capitalising on the confusion created by King’s initial error.

There was only one occasion last season when Leicester were pierced through the centre this easily. That happened on March 1st, when West Brom’s Darren Fletcher had time and space in midfield to look up and measure a through ball for Salomon Rondon to score the opener in a 2-2 draw.

That match against West Brom was the only league game that N’Golo Kante missed. Kante didn’t make the sort of mistake King made at Wembley. But Kante plays for Chelsea now, and Leicester have to make do with King. If they are lucky, their new signing from Nice, Nampalys Mendy, will turn out to have more than just a superficial physical resemblance to Kante. But they’ll have to be lucky.