The Season In Review
José Mourinho made a career out of manipulating the media and creating a siege mentality at his clubs, and of subsequently using the various controversies he created to imbue his squads with an unbreakable unity. This time Mourinho has lost his way, blindsided by Manchester City’s ascendency and his inability to stop Manchester United’s slide into inferiority. He has been needlessly vitriolic, frequently divisive and monotonously cantankerous. Almost no Earth has been left unscorched in the Portuguese’s quest to kick off controversies and
rile blame his players, and Man Utd arrive at the FA Cup semi-final in something approaching existential crisis.
It’s worth looking at why. Domestically, they have come up way short. They’re second, which is no bad thing, and their points total is respectable if not inspiring, but the quality of their football has all-too-often been turgid and they’ve failed to beat some of the team’s worst divisions in hugely uneven contests. Last weekend’s embarrassing home defeat to West Brom – previously without an away win since August – handed Man City the title, but also underscored just how far behind City this United team now are: there’s no way we can imagine Guardiola leading his team to such a meek collapse to such poor opposition when three points are so desperately needed.
On the European front, United fared little better. Their Champions League campaign only served to confirm that, even after the colossal investment of the post-Ferguson years, United’s squad is short of quality in certain areas and, more worryingly, relevant tactical ideas. Their uberdefensive gameplan in both legs against Sevilla was pitiful and became the primary reason for their elimination. While parking the bus and shutting down the game may have worked for Mourinho against the relatively naïve tacticians of Europe in 2004, it’s genuinely a terrible idea in 2018.
Mourinho has spent this week on the defensive, reminding everyone of how many titles he’s won in over the years, and it’s true that his smash-and-grab tactics have won Man Utd important battles over the course of this season – they beat Tottenham at Old Trafford and Arsenal at the Emirates playing less-than-expansive football, for example, and somehow left the Etihad with three points having been absolutely hammered – but they no longer seem capable of winning wars.
He remains an expert at setting up an ambush, spoiling a one-off game and stymying more fancied opponents, but the point remains that such ideas are not befitting of clubs of Man Utd’s stature. He stands accused, justly, of throwing away the initiative and making sure his elite players go out unable to perform to their maximum potential.
Thus this has been a season in which Man Utd have been much, much better than all-but-one team in the Premier League, but so far behind that team that the press and the fans are genuinely exasperated and offended. Many of United’s individual players are evidently brilliant, but they’re playing within themselves and instead of helping them get better, Mourinho simply blames them for being rubbish. David De Gea is the only player to emerge from this season with no question marks against his name.
The Home Straight
Aside from winning the FA Cup, which obviously matters a huge deal to a club which prides itself on basking in a deluge of silverware, most of Man Utd’s players need to use the remaining gametime this season to convince their manager that they don’t need replacing in the summer. Given how short a time many of them have been with the club and how much they all cost, that is remarkable.
Romelu Lukaku is among the best finishers in the Premier League but is pilloried for his less-than-Messi-like goalscoring and not-always-perfect first touch. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are among the most promising and electrifying attackers in world football but they’re still young and have the occasional off-day, so they routinely get benched and may well end up falling out with Mourinho and forcing a move. Paul Pogba is a sensational midfielder capable of doing absolutely anything, but he doesn’t track back as hard as he should and he seems happier applying himself to building his brand than controlling football matches.
Most importantly of all, Alexis Sánchez has to show that he belongs in this team, and where he belongs in this team. His signing from Arsenal was presented as a major coup, but he’s been frankly dreadful (as this writer predicted he would be). With concerns remaining over United’s ability to compete in midfield against top sides without parking the bus, it’s inevitable that the Alexis money will end up presented as cash which should have been invested elsewhere – unless the Chilean starts deciding games week-in, week-out.
This is a big game and we know what Mourinho does in big games. We should expect another bus-parking exercise here, with a very deep, defensive 4-3-3 showing all the zest and spark of a sloth after a heavy meal. Mourinho will name his very tallest and strongest players and hit long balls to Lukaku, hoping that a defensive slip-up happens similar to the one which cost Tottenham the game at Old Trafford.
In case we need reminding, United’s combination of ludicrous talent and formidable organisation makes them one of the Premier League’s stand-out teams. They are second in the table and have beaten all of their rivals this season. Spurs have already beaten them convincingly, but they’ve also lost to them while looking blunt.
Even though their showings in recent months have been varying degrees of frustrating, United have generally produced dominant performances and won when they’ve been supposed to. On top of that they’ve been ruthless in both boxes: their conversion rate is the Premier League’s second highest, and David De Gea’s insane save rate is easily the division’s best. Their Expected Goals ratio is the lowest of the Big Six, but easily better than the Expected Goals ratios of the Other Fourteen.
In a basic battle of individual talent, it’s hard to bet against Man Utd: any club that can call on David De Gea, Paul Pogba, Alexis Sánchez, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku will generally win games. Mourinho is arguably on the wane as an elite manager, but he remains indubitably an elite manager.
As previously stated, there are long-term worries that Mourinho may be about to torch everything around him; that Pogba is simultaneously too important to their attack and too irresponsible positionally to trust in big games; that the full-back situation isn’t quite satisfactory. These problems can give hope to any side facing them.
Most relevant here is Mourinho’s now infamous and tiresome caution in high-pressure games. Even though results continue to be more positive than howling, outraged coverage and social media reaction suggests, the obvious worry for United fans is that the Portuguese will yet again play things far too safe and, instead of sucking his opposition into a bad position and creating space for his attackers to exploit on the break, as he believes he is doing, will simply end up parking the bus and handing the game to the opposition. Their meek, gutless performances in defeats to Manchester City, Tottenham and Sevilla will live long in the memory, and every big game is now a potential ordeal for United fans.
Mourinho is surely going to go all-out-Mourinho here, with defensive tactics and political power-plays aplenty. Paul Pogba was hooked early again last weekend and may not be trusted against Spurs’ midfield, with pure blocking figures preferred against Mauricio Pochettino’s interchanging attack. The underperforming Alexis may well be benched too, but that would mean trusting Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford in a big game and they’re both under thirty years of age, and we know Mourinho won’t want to put any faith in them.
Whoever scores first will win.