Mourinho can fix Manchester United by focusing on attacking
Change needed as side seem incapable of doing what Mourinho’s teams are renowned for – defending
Chelsea’s Ross Barkley scores his side’s second goal against Manchester United to tie the game 2-2 in extra time. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire
There are times when you wonder whether the gods of football have almost too pronounced a sense of irony. Not content with a script that pitted an under-pressure José Mourinho against a series of ghosts of his past (Manuel Pellegrini, Rafa Benítez and Chelsea lining up like the conspirators around Julius Caesar, with Juventus, a club he clashed with repeatedly in Italy and now bolstered by his agent’s most high-profile other client, to come), they have devised a new torment for their plaything: his teams have become incapable of doing the thing he was renowned for getting his teams to do – defending.
Over the past two games United have shown themselves to be a side with heart and character, twice coming back from unpromising positions to take the lead. Over the past two games they have twice, when let off the leash, attacked with thrilling fluency. And over the past two games they have twice got themselves in a mess by defending of barely comprehensible incompetence.
Against Newcastle there was a collective switch-off from a throw-in, leading poor Ashley Young, charging across to try to cover, to be skinned by Kenedy. Then there was the weird pause, like patient drivers watching a learner attempting his first three-point turn, to allow Yoshinori Muto to tee himself up on his left foot for a shot.
Against Chelsea, all the focus had been on stopping Eden Hazard and disrupting Jorginho, and yet they conceded a goal from the most straightforward corner routine imaginable, Paul Pogba being distracted by Antonio Rüdiger running one side of Victor Lindelöf and David Luiz so that he had to run the other. It was not hard in that moment to imagine Mourinho raging, as he had after his final game as Chelsea manager, away at Leicester, that there was nothing more he could do.
Yet it was not a one-off aberration: this is a recurring problem. That was the 20th goal United have conceded from a set-play in Mourinho’s 85 league games as United manager. Such a problem has defending set pieces become that even Pep Guardiola, with his legions of tippy-tappy pass-goblins, targeted corners last season and was rewarded with two goals at Old Trafford.
By half-time Mourinho had no option. He had to unleash his forwards. Young and Luke Shaw played much higher in the second half, and the influence of Hazard notably waned. United’s attackers, allowed to attack, flourished. With players around him, Romelu Lukaku – no longer cast as some distant and unapproachable monument – began to look once again the mobile and powerful forward he does for Belgium. Chelsea staggered, their own defensive shortcomings suddenly exposed.
Then Mourinho did what Mourinho does and tried to sit on the lead. Off went Juan Mata and Anthony Martial; on came Ander Hererra and Andreas Pereira. This is what Mourinho teams have historically been good at: hold a lead, strike on the break. Except they didn’t. They fell back. Chelsea recovered their equilibrium.
A throw-in that was effectively a set-play was half-cleared. César Azpilicueta returned it to the box. David Luiz leaped high above two defenders and headed against the post. Perhaps that was forgivable: it was an astonishing header from a largely speculative ball. But nobody picked up Rüdiger as he followed in to draw a remarkable save from David de Gea, and even then Ross Barkley was able to get to the loose ball first.
United have now conceded 16 goals in the league this season, more than Chelsea conceded in Mourinho’s entire first season at the club. Last season a creaking rearguard was disguised somewhat by the form of De Gea, who made the fifth-most saves of any keeper in the league, and by far the most of any keeper playing for a top-half side.
Given he spent most of the summer moaning about United’s inability to sign a centre-back, it is clear where Mourinho feels the problem lies. Yet he has spent £60m on a pair of central defenders without achieving any obvious improvement. And, besides, when the problem is so clear, why does Mourinho keep seeking to play in a way that accentuates his team’s flaws?
This is a coach who famously eschews poetry, who preaches a doctrine of pragmatism. And yet, not for the first time, it seems the pragmatic thing to do might actually be to play a little more on the front foot, and that his insistence on trying to contain is itself ideological. As long as that tension remains unresolved, football will continue to have its sport with Mourinho.