Watching Manchester United under Jose Mourinho, especially recently, has proved thus far a chastening experience.
The week that has passed has offered up the ultimate microcosm of Mourinho’s 18-month tenure at the club to date; one of promise and progress (relative to his two predecessors, at least), that when a supporter sits back and considers just how bad things got towards the end of David Moyes’ troubled spell, or Louis van Gaal’s ‘notebook’ era, they may reflect that things are looking up. Just as optimism around Old Trafford seems to hit fever pitch once more, however, hopes are too often sent crashing back down, as they were last Tuesday following their dismal defeat at home to Sevilla in the Champions League last 16.
Merely 72 hours had passed after an impressive victory over the seemingly unstoppable force of Mo Salah and Liverpool on Saturday, when virtually the same side stepped out at Old Trafford under the lights. The intention: to see off what was supposed to be a very average Sevilla side, who sat 5th in La Liga and with an away record that would not have sent quivers down too many spines in the red half of Manchester. Maybe that was the issue. They’d dealt with Liverpool. They’d dismissed Chelsea two weeks previous. Could it be that those players walked out onto the pitch expecting to win at a canter? The 90 minutes that ensued proved to be anything but.
The mass of criticism following that 2-1 reverse on Tuesday has been divided almost equally between the decidedly uncharismatic attitudes from those in red on the pitch, and the dour, conservative tactics employed by the man on the touchline. Of the players, the question on the tongues of most goes along the lines of: how can a set of individuals pull on the famous red shirt of Manchester, in arguably the most important match of the season, and show a similar amount of passion and desire as a meaningless kick about on the training pitch? Of the manager: how can one as successful and intelligent as Mourinho take charge of one of the most expensively assembled squads in world football, and send them out to play in such a negative fashion?
The latter question, that of Mourinho’s conservative approach, is far easier to take a stab at answering.
“It’s Mourinho”, many will jab. It’s what he always does, isn’t it? Send his teams out with the philosophy that it will be easier to win a match of football by not allowing the opposition to score, stifling their best attackers whilst setting up his offensive players to take advantage of the occasions they manage to create an opportunity in front of goal.
In reality, his best teams have often had a lot more to them than that. As Gary Neville said during United’s 3-2 comeback at Crystal Palace recently, typical Mourinho teams power into games; they dominate the middle of the park so effectively that teams are not given the chance to get their passing rhythms into gear. Often, there’s a target man. Think Drogba of Chelsea, Eto’o of Inter, and now his current Number 9, Lukaku. They all share similar traits: extremely powerful individuals, but with the pace and nouse to outwit most defenders at their peak. At the heart of his team: his midfield enforcers, one of the reasons that Nemanja Matic has played such a crucial role under Mourinho at both Chelsea and United. It is Matic, among others, that are relied upon to quickly turnover possession and launch United onto the attack.
The key problem here for Matic, and perhaps to a larger extent for one who often plays alongside him, Paul Pogba, is not the ability of those that play further forward in the team. Take Martial, Lukaku, Rashford, Sanchez, Lingard and Mata out of United and place them in any top side around Europe, and there’s a good chance they’d be dominating most domestic and European matches, scoring goals for fun too, you’d wager.
No, the problem very much lies in how they are deployed by Mourinho. One part of the problem is consistency; has Mourinho ever gone more than two or three consecutive matches with the same forward line?Naturally, when you have the choice of attacking talent that Mourinho has, perhaps the inclination is to keep testing, tinkering, tweaking with personnel in an attempt to find the perfect combination. When you add in formations to the mix, it becomes oh so complicated.
One thing that has been painfully clear to see of late, is just how hard it seems to be for United to create chances in front of goal. Rewind to the early parts of the season. It could not be claimed that they were playing football as pleasing on the eye as the ‘noisy’ neighbours from across Manchester, or Klopp’s top-heavy Liverpool side, but the Old Trafford faithful were at least enjoying a hatful of goals on a regular basis. Recently, however, the goals have dried up. Up until the end of December, United hit the back of the net at least four times during a single match on eight separate occasions. Since December, this has happened just once, against Yeovil in January’s FA Cup tie.
It’s not as though they are spurning numerous chances in front of goal, either. In truth, they are just not being created. Throughout their nightmare performance against Sevilla last week, when their need was most dire, and against a very questionable defence, they mustered just three shots on target. A few days later during their win over Brighton in the FA Cup Quarter Final, they fared even worse, chalking up just the two. Both matches were at home, against what almost all would agree to be lesser opposition to a club such as Manchester United.
All members of the squad, barring the ageing and outgoing Zlatan Imbrahimovic, Ander Herrera and Marcos Rojo, are free of injury, seemingly fully-fit and supposedly fully on-board with Mourinho’s philosophy. Therefore, in order to begin to unravel the miserable goal return and overall attacking intent of late, we must undoubtedly turn to how this Manchester United team is set up to attack under Mourinho, and for anyone who has managed to sit through 90 minutes of their play on more than one occasion this year, the answer is all-too-obvious.
That is to say, the distinct lack of width to their play.
There are several reasons you would think United would do all they can to play with as much width within the attacking third as possible. For starters, of all that attacking talent mentioned above, many of those have cut their teeth as out-and-out wingers. Whilst the likes of Martial, Lingard, Rashford and Sanchez have all developed an instinct for moving in-field and adding to the scoresheet, they invariably started out on the flanks. Secondly, with Old Trafford boasting one of the largest pitches in the League, stretching the opposition as thin as possible across the turf would surely provide a stiffer challenge for most defences. And finally, it just makes damn footballing sense. Throw ten attackers against ten defenders (as is often the case when United try and break down their opponents), into an area barely wider than the breadth of the penalty area, and things are going to get pretty crowded.
Too often of late, United’s attackers are trying to weave in and out of challenges in front of goal, attempting to thread high-risk passes through the middle to no avail. When the ball is eventually worked out wide, it is often as an unsuccessful afterthought because A, they’ve taken too long to figure out that that’s where the space is and B, the only red shirts present on the wings are full-backs Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia because the actual wingers have drifted inside in search of the ball.
This is all too clear to see here, with United’s player positions during the loss against Sevilla:
Unfortunately for United followers, this was not an isolated occasion. Here during the subsequent match vs. Brighton in the FA Cup:
Too frequently are United’s flair players, arguably their best players, leaving the wide positions to come inside in an attempt to get onto the ball, and ultimately, onto the scoresheet. What Mourinho must surely be telling these players is that by staying out wide, they stand a far better chance of opening up their opposition, by drawing defences out into less comfortable positions, providing gaps for others.
This also goes some way to providing an argument for the lacklustre form of United’s two highest-paid players; Pogba and the newly-arrived Sanchez. Though on the face of it, Sanchez clearly operates further forward than Pogba, they are currently both trying to occupy similar areas of the pitch. With Sanchez’s natural instinct to receive the ball from the midfielders on the wing to then drive inside, this not only narrows United’s attack leaving no one as a wide option, it is also stifling Pogba’s ability to drive on from midfield. It’s clear that United looked at their best this season before Sanchez signed during the January window, with either Rashford or Martial occupying the left wing with a touch greater diligence than the new signing.
Teams that have shone in the attacking third this season have all employed width to their advantage, pulling defences all over the pitch before exploiting the gaps in between.
United’s nemesis, Manchester City, have been expert exponents of this throughout the season under Guardiola’s stewardship, with passing geniuses Silva and De Bruyne pulling the strings through the middle with the likes of Sterling and Sane out wide. A crucial difference evident here is that City’s wingers know their roles to a tee, staying out wide before darting in at the right moments, whereas United’s seem magnetised towards the goalposts at all times. Their average player positions versus Stoke City recently tell the story:
Another team blowing away all-comers this season, Liverpool, are another enjoying the benefits of playing free-flowing football with genuine wide-play. Here, against Newcastle recently, Salah appears more than happy to terrorise his opponent out wide before cutting in for the kill:
On the continent, Barcelona remain arguably the pantheon of the beautiful game, and although their aesthetically pleasing football may have dipped from the eyewatering heights of four or five years ago, the blueprint remains. Over the past decade or so, the Catalans have been fortunate to have some of the best wingers of recent times, from the likes of Ronaldinho and Giuly, to Neymar, Dembele and of course Messi. All of them knew when to come in from the line and play centrally (something Messi does almost permanently these days), but they appreciated that width was the key to getting behind the defence and unlocking the door. Here against Chelsea last week:
United will not solve all of their problems by instructing two of their players to hug the touchline for an entire 90 minutes of football. Solid as their defence may be, a mistake always appears to be just around the corner, whilst two converted wingers in Young and Valencia surely cannot be relied upon at full back for too much longer (as reliable as they have indeed been). What they will revive, on the other hand, is a sense of attacking intent that has not been seen at Old Trafford for some time now, and is desperately needed if they are to move on from what probably will ultimately been seen as a disappointing season when judged by the standards that their closest rivals have set.
For now at least, gone are the days of the true wingers, the old-school Beckham and Giggs types who used to belt up and down the wing all game long, with more of an eye to provide an assisting cross into the box than to dart inside and score. But as City, Liverpool and several other high-flyers around Europe have shown, playing with real width is certainly not an old-fashioned tactic dug up from the past. It remains one of the best weapons an attacking team has of breaking apart well-drilled defences on a regular basis.
Whether Mourinho, a coach who is notoriously relunctant in allowing his sides to play anything like the expansive, attractive football on show at his rivals across Europe, will change his approach at Manchester United, is another story altogether.
Image source: whoscored.com