Subscriber OnlySoccer

Ken Early: Klopp and Pep don’t need big Belgians, why does Jose?

United boss Jose Mourinho blames FA Cup defeat on Lukaku and Fellaini absence

Jose Mourinho was "curious today, tomorrow, the next couple of days, to read, to watch, to listen, to your opinions," because he wanted to see whether people would criticise Chelsea for beating Manchester United with defensive, counterattacking football. "If my team played like Chelsea did, I can imagine what people say," he said.

We can imagine, also, what Mourinho would say in response to any such criticism. He would sarcastically talk about “poets” and “Einsteins”, the kind of people who talk a lot but don’t win too many medals.

Unfortunately for Mourinho, there were too many other storylines surrounding Chelsea this weekend - will Conte stay? will Hazard stay? will Abramovich be able to get his visa renewed? - for the media to devote much time criticising the tactics that won Chelsea the game.

Instead Mourinho himself had to assume the role of analytical Einstein, declaring that he "knew" his team would struggle once he realised injury had deprived him of both Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini.


“Without Lukaku we have no presence, without Fellaini we have no presence . . . I knew that without a target man it would be difficult for us, I knew that without at least Fellaini coming from the second line, attacking their defensive line with his physicality, I knew that would be difficult.”

There are, of course, ways to beat Chelsea other than bludgeoning them into submission with gigantic Belgians. Ask some of the other teams who have defeated them this season. Crystal Palace beat Chelsea playing the wonder winger Wilfried Zaha as their sole front man. Arsenal beat them with the 5'9" Alexandre Lacazette up front on his own, Manchester City beat them away using the 5'9" Gabriel Jesus at centre-forward and at home with the 5'8" Sergio Agüero, Bournemouth won against Chelsea using the 5'11" Callum Wilson as a lone striker, and just last week the 5'10" Ayoze Perez and the 5'9" Dwight Gayle ran riot as Newcastle beat Chelsea 3-0.

None of these sides had towering Belgians but they each had something Manchester United lack, that is, they had some kind of coherent attacking game plan based around the strengths of the players they did have.

Mourinho was as good as admitting that he had no idea how to open up Chelsea except by slinging it into the box and hoping one of his big lads could get on the end of it. This was described by the Sevilla captain, Simon Kjaer, as the football of "coincidences" and no doubt coincidence football can take you a long way. When your Belgians are big enough and leap about in the penalty area enough they are almost guaranteed to give any defence a couple of awkward moments.

But this is not the sort of thinking you expect to find at the very top of the game and it is not the way most of Mourinho's peers think. Pep Guardiola has set a new goalscoring record in the Premier League without a target man, Jurgen Klopp has set a new goalscoring record in the Champions League without a target man.

Most teams would be improved by the addition of two "magical" players, but maybe United would be different

It seems unlikely that either Guardiola or Klopp would be unable to assemble a functional attack from components including Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata.

Reflecting on the Wembley defeat, Paul Scholes suggested that United "need that big player, that magical player, two or three magic- . . . well, I'd say two magical players . . . "

Most teams would be improved by the addition of two “magical” players, but maybe United would be different. There’s a well-established pattern in Mourinho’s career that the players who struggle in his teams are precisely the “magical” ones, especially those who start from the wing.

His low-risk approach demands too much from these players in the defensive sense, draining them of energy and confidence. Essentially, Mourinho demands that they make decisive attacking contributions in every match, while simultaneously retreating to become an auxiliary full-back whenever his team loses the ball.

Exceptional players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Eden Hazard managed it for a while before falling out with Mourinho. Damien Duff, Arjen Robben, Kevin de Bruyne, Mohamed Salah, Juan Mata and Juan Cuadrado are just some of the gifted forwards who have been ground down by his irreconcilable demands.

This pattern has continued at United, where Mourinho has already dispensed with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Memphis Depay. Anthony Martial looks likely to follow them out the door, while Alexis Sanchez has struggled to interpret his new role. It’s no surprise that United have been linked with a move for Willian, a rare player who does have the elusive combination of qualities you need to be Mourinho’s kind of winger: the humility of a Buddhist monk in the body of an elite long-distance runner. And yet it’s doubtful whether Willian is the sort of magic man Scholes had in mind.

Many United players have big decisions to make this summer. Martial has lost his place in the France squad. Paul Pogba has held on to his international place, but he will remember this as the season when, for some reason, he had to sit on the bench and watch Scott McTominay and Fellaini play most of the failed Champions League tie against Sevilla. As for Marcus Rashford, his main function now is to act as a kind of hapless visual aid to Mourinho’s regular lectures on the importance of having an enormous Belgian target man.

All the United players are watching the prizes and plaudits go to players and teams managed by the sort of guys who don’t think it’s impossible to play football without a target man. All of them are thinking: if only things were a little different, that could be me. Mourinho’s last word to the media was “I leave [for the summer] happy with my players,” but you wonder how many of them can be happy with him.