Why are Manchester United usually outplayed in the big matches, and why are some of their most talented players failing to shine? There is one unusual feature of their play under Jose Mourinho that helps to explain why. It's a tactical quirk of which we know Mourinho is proud, because he's always telling us about it, in both bad moments and good.
Unlike most other managers of top clubs, Mourinho often tells his defenders that they are not to pass the ball to the central midfielders in front of them. The bigger the game and the more dangerous the opponent, the more likely it is Mourinho will forbid these “first-station” passes.
When United lost 2-1 at home to Manchester City in September 2016 – Mourinho's first defeat as United manager – he lamented his players' failure to follow his instructions: "I had told them never to play a first-station ball – it's where City want to press – but they did it 20 times."
The players soon learned. Last summer, Mourinho provided details on the tactics United had used in their 2-0 victory over Ajax in the 2017 Europa League final. In essence, it was the same plan his players had failed to execute against City.
“Everyone said that Ajax played a beautiful game of football and the beauty of football matters and blah, blah, blah. I told my players that, for me, beautiful is not giving our opponents what they want. I even joked with Smalling, ‘With your feet, we’re for sure not playing out from the back’ . . . That’s where we won the game. During the initial stage of the build-up we never played from our centre-backs to our midfielders, because they are great at recovering possession pressing high. In our midfield they didn’t recover the ball once. If the ball isn’t there, what are they going to press?”
Mourinho dislikes first-station passes because the area between central defence and central midfield is the most dangerous part of the pitch in which to lose the ball. So, to minimise the possibility of a fatal error, he tells his team to avoid playing through this area, particularly in big matches against sharp opponents.
It was plain that the usual policy was in place for the Champions League match against Sevilla last week. Mourinho left out his best midfield passers, Pogba and Mata, preferring his two tall blockers, Matic and Fellaini. The only way a United central midfielder could receive the ball from a central defender in normal build-up play was by dropping back into the defensive line.
How is Pogba supposed to look good when half his team-mates are told not to pass him the ball?
Defenders who have been instructed not to pass the ball into central midfield are left with two options: they can go down the sides, or they can go long. The build-up passes from United defenders were generally directed down the flanks towards Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford or Alexis Sanchez. Alternatively, the ball was booted directly by David de Gea towards the big man, Romelu Lukaku.
The cost of playing with such a self-imposed restriction is that your moves are easier for the opponent to read, and this was never more evident than in the build-up to Sevilla's opening goal. United's defenders passed the ball ponderously back and forth across the length of the defensive line, to the audible exasperation of the crowd. Eventually Antonio Valencia knocked it up the wing towards Alexis Sanchez.
Anticipate the pass
When the opponents know that you don't pass the ball into the centre, it's easy for them to anticipate the pass up the line, and by the time the ball reached Sanchez he was already being tackled. He lost possession and a few seconds later Wissam Ben Yedder was putting the ball in the net.
In the days since that defeat Mourinho has had plenty to say. He argued on Friday that going out in the second round was about par for Manchester United given their lack of “heritage”, by which he seemed to mean their mediocre European performances since 2011. He claimed Sevilla had several players who would walk straight into United’s first XI. Then, on Saturday, he reacted to the 2-0 FA Cup win over Brighton by accusing some of his players of lacking personality, class and desire.
Mourinho appears to be working towards two goals: one, to force the directors who recently extended his contract to back him in the summer transfer market as never before; two, to introduce a bit of shock and awe to the dressingroom by sacrificing a couple of scapegoats – those weak individuals who have sabotaged the season with their lack of personality, class and desire.
But United supporters who feel like joining their manager in condemning the scapegoats should think about the mechanics of what is actually happening on the pitch.
Paul Pogba’s form has been poor, but how is he supposed to look good when half his team-mates are told not to pass him the ball? Alexis Sanchez has failed to reproduce the form he showed at Arsenal, but might that failure have something to do with a playing system that tends to give him the ball in situations when he is moving back towards his own goal, with a defender already on top of him?
Romelu Lukaku at least is scoring goals, and Mourinho has praised him for his personality, class, desire, etc. But might Lukaku’s good performances have more to do with tactics than with his personal qualities? If he is playing well, might that be because he is the focal point of the whole system – the target of all the long balls – and therefore has many chances to get involved and influence the game?
If Mourinho could come up with a game plan that played to the strengths of Pogba or Sanchez rather than marginalising them, might they suddenly start showing evidence of personality, class and desire? And if he can’t, why should anyone at United believe that next season will be any better than this one?