Ken Early: Mourinho reverts to type with Fellaini substitution
For all talk of United’s return to former style, in crunch manager opts for brawn over skill
Manchester United manager José Mourinho talks to Marouane Fellaini ahead of his introduction in the game against Liverpool yesterday. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
At 1-0 down with 15 minutes to go, José Mourinho had a decision to make. He had one substitution left with which to change the game. On the bench he had four outfield players to choose from. Two of them were defenders: Chris Smalling and Daley Blind. One was a forward: Marcus Rashford. And then there was the siege engine: Marouane Fellaini.
In recent weeks, as his team went on a run of nine wins in a row, there has been a lot of talk about how Mourinho has made Manchester United feel like Manchester United again.
Here was a moment for Mourinho to show whether he was a coach in the classic United tradition. Nobody ever speaks about the Manchester United way without mentioning wingers. The popular choice in the stadium would have been to unleash Rashford against Liverpool’s 18-year-old debutant right-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold.
But Mourinho is not a coach in that tradition. In the pressure moments, he will always revert to what he believes in; that is, brute force. Fellaini joined Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front as United rained hell from on high on the Liverpool defence.
In the event, Fellaini helped to force the equaliser. The substitution therefore goes down as a Mourinho masterstroke. In reality, this was a game that tended to raise doubts over Mourinho’s suitability for Manchester United, rather than dispel them.
The match pitted a full-strength United side against a Liverpool team that had been patched up in the absence of several key players. A win would have brought United level with Guardiola’s crumbling Manchester City and within three points of second place. If ever there was a moment for this renascent United to make a statement, this was it.
The most expensive player in the world was the worst player on the pitch. Besides giving away the penalty, Pogba missed a good chance, was caught dawdling in possession, and created confusion in his own penalty area with an ineptitude at defensive set pieces that was bewildering to see in a player who spent four seasons with Juventus.
At half-time Mourinho decided that he had seen enough. If Pogba and his team-mates could not be trusted to move the ball smoothly through midfield, the ball would have to go over them. United would launch it to the centre-forward and seek to capitalise on second balls in front of Liverpool’s box.
Afterwards, Zlatan Ibrahimovic spoke approvingly of the tactical change and lamented the fact that United had not played more direct earlier in the game. They were obviously a bigger team than Liverpool, with a two-inch average height advantage among the outfield players. It was enough to make you wonder why Mourinho hadn’t gone direct from the outset.
The reason he waited until half-time to revert to his preferred method is that even though Mourinho is virtually defined by his disdain for considerations of style, he is politically savvy enough to know that 1980s-style target man football will not be acceptable at Manchester United.
Nor should it be. The Premier League managers who favour the direct game – guys like Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis – play this way because they manage the kind of teams that cannot afford to buy the best players. Direct football is a sensible way to put together an effective team on a limited budget, because size and strength are cheaper than talent and insight.
Yet their record against big teams is worse than it was last year, in Louis van Gaal’s season of doom. They have won only one of six matches against the top five. At the same stage last season, van Gaal’s side had won three and lost just one of six matches against those big sides – including a double over Liverpool.
Under Mourinho, United have at least rediscovered the knack of beating the smaller Premier League teams. Unhappily for them, so have all the other big clubs. That is why United have managed to accumulate more points from their first 21 games than they did last year, only to find themselves in a worse position.
After 21 matches in the 2015-2016 campaign, Louis van Gaal’s United were two points off the Champions League places, and nine points behind the league leaders. At the same point in 2016-2017, Mourinho’s team are four points from the Champions League, and 12 points behind the leaders.
There is an argument that the team are on a steady upward trajectory as they absorb Mourinho’s ideas. Well, maybe we are watching the dominant team of 2018 take shape. Maybe Zlatan, who has scored 14 of their 32 league goals, will play even better at 37 than he does at 36.
Or maybe United, despite heavy investment, have scarcely improved since last season, which was widely judged a disaster. The big difference is that Mourinho is a more convincing front-man than Van Gaal, and many people are therefore convinced that his leadership has turned the club around. As so often in life, believing is seeing.