Manchester United, after an uninspiring start, have won nine on the bounce on the eve of their titanic clash against Liverpool. What has changed under the Special One?
The marriage of Manchester United and Jose Mourinho always seemed like one of convenience more than anything else. Despite an FA Cup triumph at the end of the 2015-16 campaign, the plodding, boring tactics employed by Louis van Gaal had to go. However, an obvious successor wasn’t exactly available. Pep had already been given the keys to the vault on the blue side of Manchester. Carlo Ancelotti had already been appointed successor at Bayern. Antonio Conte had accepted the right to be fired by Abromovich at Chelsea. Few other notable names were seeking work. On top of that, there was an urgency to find someone who would win soon. After three disastrous post-Sir Alex years with one trophy to show for it, and with City and Liverpool perhaps building dynasties under Pep and Klopp respectively, there was a danger of falling behind in the ever more lucrative (and thus, even) English top flight. As a result, younger names like Eddie Howe were not considered, given the building job that would have to be done to satisfy such a change of direction.
Enter Jose Mourinho, fresh off an embarrassing exit in year 3 of his second go-around at Chelsea. The United job was one he always seemed to crave, and his history of winning early and often made him an attractive option for United. However, there was reason for skepticism. The sacking of David Moyes after less than a year and the exit of LvG even after a cup win had many growing wary of United’s short-term fixes. And nobody is a shorter term fix than Mourinho, who rarely lasts more than 3 years at any stop. But what Mourinho did bring was a box office personality who could attract box office players. Acquisitions under van Gaal rarely paid off, with the likes of Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Angel di Maria either flaming out (the latter) or being buried at the back end of the 18 (the formers). Mourinho could attract the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to rouse the masses. But could he win matches with a mix of big new names and players still seemingly handcuffed by the strict tutelage of LvG?
The answer early on was not so much. After three wins to open the campaign, United were absolutely bossed by City in the derby, losing 2-1 but never really getting out of the gates. This sent them into a tailspin that included losses to the likes of Feyenoord and Watford, brutally frustrating home draws against the likes of Stoke and Burnley, and a 4-0 thrashing in Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge, his worst loss ever in England. In all, United won only twice in the league from September-November, and needed a win in their final Europa League group stage match just to get to the knockout stage.
However, since that must-win at Zorya Luhansk, United have won nine in a row and are unbeaten in their last 15 dating back to a 3-1 win at Swansea. What’s changed? And what does it mean going forward?
Switching from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3: Mourinho isn’t necessarily known for his willingness to be tactically flexible, but in this case it was an absolute necessity. United began the year playing a midfield 2, with Pogba generally paired with either Ander Herrera or Marouane Fellaini. This failed for two reasons. First, Pogba is constantly desperate to get forward. Turns out the richest footballer in the world doesn’t fancy sitting back to protect the back four. This left his midfield partner horribly exposed on a frequent basis, with the most notable examples coming in the derby against City when Pogba was often caught upfield against a City team who sends their fullbacks forward. The numbers advantages were obvious and left many wondering what Pogba’s role should really be. The other development was the emergence of Michael Carrick as an indispensable part of the United attack. His ability to pick out passes from the back was often the engine behind many United chances. However, at 35, he’s nearly useless by himself in front of the back four. And so began the three man midfield. Carrick in the middle, paired with Pogba and (usually) Herrera. This accomplished two things. It gave Carrick some extra protection in the back, and it allowed Pogba to basically roam wherever he wanted without worrying about what was going on behind him. This freedom has resulted in many positive plays like his assist on the winner at Crystal Palace (https://twitter.com/ManUtdReport_/status/809153394615193605).
This setup is unquestionably the way forward for United, even though Mourinho might prefer two defensive midfielders and a true number 10. Depending on next summer’s acquisition, that may be what future United sides look like. But for now, the three man midfield is the engine driving their winning ways.
Dropping Wayne Rooney: Not a matter of if, but when. The debate about dropping Rooney actually dates back to last season when it became clear they didn’t have a position for him (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8GlbI00XSg). His touch failed him too often to play the number 9 role. He’s not a precise enough passer to be a true number 10. And he lacks the pace at his age to be an effective winger. As Mourinho tends to do, he gave his veteran every chance to keep his spot as the first name on the team sheet. But they are simply a different team with him out. Instead of Rooney at the number 10, Pogba is allowed to drift into that spot when needed. And the likes of Mkhitaryan, Lingard, Rashford, and Martial deliver the kind of pace and touch around Zlatan that Rooney simply lacks at his age. He’s still a usable option in the midweek and in cup matches (he scored his 249th career goal to tie Sir Bobby Charlton for the club record against Reading in the FA Cup). But in the league, he’s little more than an occasional substitute.
The Jones-Rojo centerback pairing: This is the most unlikely development at Old Trafford. Neither seemed likely to rate highly under Mourinho. Marcos Rojo, an LvG acquisition who spent most of his time at fullback, simply never showed anything to suggest he was a first team player. And Phil Jones, oft injured as he is, figured unlikely to ever be on the good side of Mourinho, who favors players who he can count on to be in the side week after week. A more likely pairing figured to be Chris Smalling (a long-time United regular) and Eric Bailly (Mourinho’s first purchase, plucked from La Liga). Bailly rated very highly early in the year, but a nasty knee injury sidelined him for several months (he’s now on African Cup of Nations duty). Smalling has not exactly taken highly to Mourinho’s more demanding managerial style and has been seen sulking on the bench far too often. So the Jones-Rojo pairing has worked out almost by default. But it has been effective. They’re unbeaten in the league and haven’t surrendered more than a goal in any one game since they took over. Bailly is surely a first choice when he’s back and healthy. But it will be a difficult task to figure which of the two standouts to remove from the team sheet.
The schedule: Not every success has been the direct result of genius. Some is just good fortune. And United’s schedule in their recent run of form hasn’t exactly been murderer’s row. Outside of a win against title contenders Tottenham, the remaining league opponents (Crystal Palace, West Brom, Sunderland, Boro, and West Ham), are far more likely to be in a relegation battle than a title fight. And their cup opponents (Zorya, Reading, Hull) never figured to be making a trip to Wembley in those competitions. Additionally, much of these wins came during the Christmas holiday, when everybody’s fixture list is crazy. No Thursday Europa League to weigh down the weekend legs against fresher opponents. February will see the return of Europa League action, while United are also involved in the League Cup semifinal and march forward in their defense of the FA Cup. Will their run of form prove to be smoke and mirrors once the schedule gets busier compared to their weekend opponents? Likely, but that remains to be seen.
What does it all mean?: We’re one sleep away from finding out. Liverpool visits Old Trafford on Sunday in a game that figures to drastically reshape the race for the top 4 one way or the other. United played for the point in a 0-0 result at Anfield earlier in the year. But given their current form, the fact that their at home, and the fact that they haven’t climbed the table in the last month, Mourinho will surely go after a statement win against a man (Jurgen Klopp) who has garnered many headlines since moving to England. Liverpool have struggled in the new year, drawing at Sunderland and failing to score in cup matches against Plymouth Argyle and Southampton. Their two best players are also in limbo. Philippe Coutinho has been hobbled with an ankle injury but figures to play (though not 100% fit), and Sadio Mane is off at the African Cup of Nations.
Also in United’s favor is that they’ve finally found their best 11. With De Gea in goal, Shaw/Blind-Rojo-Jones-Valencia in the back, Pogba-Carrick-Herrera in the middle, and Martial-Zlatan-Mkhitaryan up top, United have been a tough out. The only fitness questions going into tomorrow are Shaw (unlikely to play), Rojo (fit enough, according to the manager), and Zlatan (illness kept him out of the home leg of the League Cup semi, but he’s almost certain to play), but those are unlikely to truly impact the shape. Mourinho may choose a more veteran presence on the left wing (either Lingard or Mata instead of Martial), but the frenchman Martial gives them the best chance to score goals in a match where they’ll likely need at *least* two. In any event, their form, their health, and the fact that they’re playing at home and need to win means all signs point to a United win, and a renewed run at the top 4 and perhaps a title fight. A loss means it’s all for naught. What’ll it be, Jose?