Mourinho’s use of Herrera a coded protest by a man struggling to cope
Manager seemed more intent on making a point about his resources than beating Tottenham
Jose Mourinho makes a point of applauding the fans after the 3-0 home defeat to Spurs at Old Trafford. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
“From a tactical point of view, we didn’t lose,” said José Mourinho, which must have come as a tremendous relief to the thousands of Manchester United fans – the ones who weren’t posing for selfies with Lucas Moura, at least – who thought they had just seen their side suffer their worst home defeat in four years.
But then, had he even been picking his team from a tactical point of view?
What was the rationale in picking Ander Herrera on the right of a back three? Mourinho had played a back three against Tottenham at home last season, when United won 1-0, but then it was Eric Bailly used alongside Chris Smalling and Phil Jones and Herrera was deployed at the back of midfield with Nemanja Matic.
Why not Bailly this time? Or why not Victor Lindelöf, or even Matteo Darmian? Why a midfielder who in 384 previous games had never played as a central defender?
Herrera, it’s true, has been used to negate a specific player before, notably picking up Eden Hazard against Chelsea, but this was not a man-marking job. Here, he was playing as an orthodox right-sided centre-back. Perhaps there was a good tactical reason. Perhaps Mourinho thought his tenacity would negate Dele Alli drifting in from the left (not, as it turned out, that Alli operated from the left as Mauricio Pochettino, perhaps mindful of how Alli and Christian Eriksen had been snuffed out by United’s 3-4-2-1 last season, pulled Alli deeper and unleashed Moura’s pace against United’s lumbering rearguard).
But this felt like a statement selection, one of those teams Mourinho picks less to win a game than to make a point, a suspicion heightened by the fact that his first response in his post-match television interview was to point out that the transfer market is closed.
There is always a danger with Mourinho of attributing Machiavellian intent to his every act, as though he is some universal spider constantly spinning his webs of intrigue. Sometimes a mistake is just a mistake, but Monday’s teamsheet conjured images of a raw night at Adams Park 2007, when Mourinho picked Michael Essien and Paulo Ferreira at centre-back for a League Cup semi-final against Wycombe in protest at not being allowed to sign Tal Ben Haim.
At least at Wycombe he got away with a 1-1 draw and did not have to witness his propaganda pick making two errors in the build-up to a vital goal. That was the beginning of the end of his time at Chelsea, although it would be a further nine months before he finally left. At United, frankly, it would be a surprise if he lasted that long.
This mess is not entirely of Mourinho’s making. The squad is a shambles. There are clear issues at the back, not least the fact that of his five regular central defenders only Marcos Rojo, who is injured, is really comfortable operating as the left of a pair. Three of those five he inherited but two, Bailly and Lindelöf, the two he felt unable to include on Monday (and given Lindelöf’s performance after coming off the bench, with good reason) were signed on his watch for a total of €66 million.
But incoherent as the squad is, is Mourinho getting the best out of them?
After the sluggishness of the performance at Brighton, there was at least energy against Tottenham. It was frantic and ugly but it unnerved Spurs who, as Harry Kane admitted, were themselves a little sloppy in the first half. But when six of the starting line-up were making their first start of the season, is it really a surprise they could not sustain that intensity into the second half?
And more fundamentally, is the consequence of playing at that pace the sort of openness Mourinho despises?
Last season Mourinho was criticised for his negativity in certain big games, particularly against Liverpool away and Tottenham at home (partly for stylistic reasons but also because with Manchester City streaking into the distance, there seemed little sense in risking the draw).
But perhaps this was the alternative. Only four goalkeepers, after all, made more saves than David de Gea in the Premier League last season, and two of them ended up relegated. United conceded only 28 goals, but they were far from the impenetrability that used to characterise Mourinho sides.
It may be that Mourinho, as he did after Real Madrid’s 5-0 defeat at Barcelona in 2010, will try to turn this into self-justification – “See what happens when I try to do it your way?” – but that was at the beginning of a long and sulphurous campaign that, while raising demons that ultimately unseated him, did achieve its objective of toppling Pep Guardiola. Two years in, it seems reasonable to ask if United are any closer to winning the league than they were when Mourinho took over.
And more pertinently, it seems reasonable to ask just what the plan is with this squad. Why is it so imbalanced? Why are there such obvious flaws? Perhaps that is not Mourinho’s fault, but where there is a major doubt is in whether he has the capacity any more to create a side that can attack without being catastrophically open. Why should it be all or nothing? And why should every teamsheet have to be examined for coded protests?