Ken Early: Mourinho delivers another smash-and-grab classic
Manchester United manager’s tactics were once again devoted to nullifying opposition
José Mourinho pouted and pointed to his badge as he walked towards the tunnel. This was no ordinary victory. The 2-0 win over his old team, delivered at the third time of asking, recalled the other emotional high point of his second spell in English football: the 2-0 win at Anfield that torpedoed Liverpool’s hopes of the league title in 2014.
Both games fell on a weekend between important European matches. Both times, Mourinho rested key players in an apparent decision to prioritise Europe. And both times he was rewarded with excellent performances from the junior players who were thrust centre stage – Tomás Kalas at Anfield, and Marcus Rashford at Old Trafford.
Rashford scored a Jamie Vardy goal, and it will have pleased Mourinho enormously to see his team execute such a killer counter-attack against the team he has identified as the kings of the counter-attack.
The BBC had asked Mourinho if he was surprised that Chelsea were leading the league. “I’m not surprised,” he answered. “I’m surprised with the way they play. I’m surprised because I thought they were demanding a different kind of football. I think they are very good defensively and I think they have fantastic players to be a counter-attack team and to kill opponents with three or four players.”
This, of course, is exactly how Mourinho thinks the game ought to be played. The target of these comments was Roman Abramovich and the Chelsea hierarchy, who had tormented Mourinho with – as he saw it – idiotic demands that he play a more open, attacking style. He therefore loves to talk about how similar Conte’s Chelsea are to Mourinho’s version.
It’s not strictly true, of course. Conte’s preference for 3-4-3 has to do with the fact that he recognises Eden Hazard is never going to do much defending, and has instead settled on a system that doesn’t require him to do much, whereas Mourinho kept complaining to Hazard about his failure to do any defending until their relationship broke down.
Mourinho also complained that for the third time, United were having to play Chelsea “before or between” Europa League games: the implication was that Chelsea, who haven’t had to play European football this season, were more rested than his team.
Yet that is not really true either. Antonio Conte has charged towards the title, much as Mourinho did at Chelsea in 2015, by picking the same XI every week. Ten of Chelsea’s players have played more than 2,000 minutes in the Premier League. Eight of those were in the starting team at Old Trafford; it would have been 10 had Thibaut Courtois and Marcos Alonso not been injured or sick. United, by contrast, have only five players in the squad who have played more than 2,000 minutes in the league.
On average, the 10 Chelsea outfielders at Old Trafford had played 2,266 minutes in the Premier League, while the United outfielders had played 1,546. The average difference was 720 minutes, or eight full Premier League matches.
This might be why Chelsea, who supposedly have the easier schedule, looked tired and sluggish, while United, supposedly overstretched by the European campaign, were the ones looking sharp and energetic.
Then again, perhaps that impression also had something to do with United using the sharp and energetic Rashford up front in his preferred central role. Mourinho has preferred Zlatan, who gives United presence, but also slows them up. You could see Rashford, but not Zlatan, fitting in with the mobile attacks at Spurs, Manchester City and Liverpool.
His early goal allowed United to play the way Mourinho likes his teams to play, defending carefully and pouncing on errors, and Chelsea made plenty of those. Mourinho’s pre-match contention that Chelsea were more rested and that they only play on the counter-attack was in fact more true of his own team.
Of course, Rashford only got that early chance thanks to the referee Bobby Madley’s failure to spot Ander Herrera’s hand-ball, an error that caught Chelsea on the hop. Mourinho lavished praise on Madley: “This young referee makes me very happy . . . He was very good.”
If only Madley had been there at Stamford Bridge when United lost 1-0 to Chelsea in the FA Cup and Michael Oliver sent off Herrera for persistent fouling. Madley is more Mourinho’s kind of ref: 27 matches, one red card. For comparison, the average for the Premier League this season is a red card every nine matches, and for the four other major leagues it’s a red card every 3-5 matches.
“I was convinced that controlling the two players that play behind Diego [Costa] and controlling the full-backs because they go really deep with two wide men would create lots of problems,” Mourinho said afterwards. “When they tried to play counter-attack we were always in control of these two link positions. We did that at Stamford Bridge when we played with 11. Today we control.”
The interesting thing about Mourinho’s analysis is how clearly focused it is on nullifying the opposition. On this occasion, his side got the rub of the green. The decisions and deflections went their way. But United aren’t the sort of club that can play smash-and-grab football in every game.
And it’s one thing producing a one-off plan to nullify your old team. It’s another coming up with a vision of what the next great Manchester United side will look like. Nine months after taking over, Mourinho is no closer to showing us.