This season has been a success, a limited success maybe but there is no doubt that it has been a success. Two major trophies plus a Charity shield win, (so three by Jose’s logic) and consequential direct qualification for the group stages of the Champions League is a good return. Most United fans want more and a sense of joy at this success is matched by a sense of anticipation about what might be in the future. Considering it a qualified success works on two levels here, firstly United fans don’t really want to be winning League Cups and Europa Leagues, what we want is to be winning or at least challenging for the Premiership and Champions League and secondly we want United to be doing so in an imperious style. Nevertheless this season has if nothing else won Mourinho some time.
Playing the way that United should
When Jose Mourinho was announced as the new United manager it is fair to say that opinion was split amongst most United fans. The need for change from the Van Gaal regime was almost universally accepted but not everyone was convinced about Mourinho and his methods. He ticked all the boxes in being a successful manager, a proven winner with a persona which was unlikely to see him overwhelmed by the position and its attendant pressures. Most scepticism related to his approach to the game, one that was characterised, some would say caricatured as cautious and pragmatic. Not then in the swashbuckling attack minded tradition that most United fans feel is an intrinsic part of the club’s DNA.
The jury is still out for many in this area but the success on the pitch has given Mourinho an opportunity to demand the backing of the board to develop his team further. What United fans will expect though is that he will take it further both in developing a more attack minded playing style whilst also challenging for the more prestigious trophies.
Jose will not abandon this side of his approach. United were hard to beat under Van Gaal and have remained so under Jose. Put the late season losses to Arsenal and Spurs; United were undoubtedly focused solely on success in Europe and United could easily have lost those two games anyway and for a long time United remained unbeaten in the season.
That tenacity under Mourinho, as under Van Gaal was not founded on a strong defence but rather on an overall team structure and approach. Jose will retain a strong structure but if he is to make United stronger next season he will need to strengthen his defence to allow a greater emphasis on attack from those players in front of them; United need to score more to make this sought of unbeaten run count by yielding more wins and fewer draws. The difference in approach this year however has been very clear. Under Van Gaal United defended by retaining possession on an “if we have the ball you can’t attack us basis”, Jose on the other hand has defended by controlling space rather than the ball. So against Ajax United won with just 33% possession. This might be characterised as parking the bus but that isn’t really what he has usually done rather he has sought to control the space in the middle of the pitch via his famed trivote.
Mourinho usually tries to keep three players in this area who will seek to avoid situations where they are outnumbered; Herrera and Pogba have been key to this and it has been the balance of their qualities which have been so important in our success. Popular opinion saw Herrera voted fans player of the season. That is probably as a consequence of the combination of his performances and the fact that he so obviously gets United; like Patrice Evra he clearly loves the club. On the other hand not everyone gets Paul Pogba, which we at www.manutdtactics.com find baffling. Forget the money United paid for him, where Herrera brings tenacity and hard work to that central area Pogba bring strength, control, vision and calm. The balance between this pair has been so important to United’s method this season and we would imagine will continue to be so in the future.
The third member of this midfield trivote has often been Fellaini. He is what he is, a hard working honest although some would say limited player. A physical presence, he can be a nuisance especially when played in high areas. He can however be clumsy, he doesn’t have quick feet and his passing range is limited so he can be a liability when played close to his own goal. He had an excellent game in Stockholm where he was given the task of tracking Schone, Ajax deepest midfield player whilst he also found time to act as a target for United’s early balls up to the front. He did so well that Schone was replaced in the second half. What managers like about Fellaini is that he sticks to the tactical plan. He usually does exactly the task allocated to him and as long as his areas of weakness are factored into that plan he is a useful player to have around. With the loss of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger in this area of the team and with Carrick another year older we would expect Jose Mourinho to strengthen by adding another midfield player this summer.
At times Mourinho’s focus on controlling the midfield can make United quite narrow, both defensively and when going forward. Jose has often relied on fullbacks to provide attacking width. That has worked well on the right where Antonio Valencia has excelled but not so well at times on the left. Darmian is more of a traditional defender who is generally very cautious in going forward; he will hardly ever make an overlapping run. Mourinho has expressed his frustration with Luke Shaw on more than one occasion. The frustrating thing for www.mantdtactics.com is that prior to his injury Shaw was becoming exactly the sought of United fullback Jose wants. The problem seems to be mental, he was of course horribly injured when making a surging run forward and he now seems almost as reluctant as Darmian to get forward. Jose has remarked that he can’t do Shaw’s thinking for him on the pitch, which is of course true. Shaw has the undoubted ability but we think it’s not so much a judgement thing as a confidence thing and that’s something we hope the manager will recognise and work on. We would hope United would keep Shaw as if he can overcome these problems he should be a fixture in the United side for many years to come.
Much focus has been on United’s need to strengthen in central defence and we would expect United to strengthen here. Smalling, who didn’t have that much to do in the Europa League final appears to have gone backward this season after improving significantly under Van Gaal, like Jones he has also suffered with injuries. Jones injury record would appear to suggest that he is the most likely to leave.
Rojo and Blind have both performed well, both have areas of weakness but play to their limits and Blind is perhaps the most intelligent footballer in the squad. Like Valencia at right back Blind also never seems to get injured which is a blessing given the injury records of our other defenders.
Eric Bailly has been the star of the show at the back producing a highly promising first season. He can be a little impetuous at times and needs to watch his temper but he is a quick, athletic, solid defender who is reliable in possession and strong in defence. He needs a more reliable and regular partner if United are to improve significantly and as most great sides are built on a strong and stable central defensive partnership this area seems a priority.
All that said United have been defensively good this season whatever the shortcomings of individuals. The problem is the number of goals scored. By attack we mean those players who operate for a good period of their time in the final third. This of course means the forward line but also attacking midfield players who will spend most of their time here when United are on top in a match or where teams have set their stall out at Old Trafford to stubbornly defend.
In the Premier League United scored 54 goals to finish 6th, that is 23 goals fewer than Arsenal in 5th place and 31 goals fewer than Champions Chelsea, (Tottenham the highest scorers manged one more than Chelsea). What this tells us is that United’s play in the final third has been ineffective. There have been periods in the season where the lack of goals has been down to missed chances but it isn’t just about profligacy as there has been plenty of other occasions when United haven’t created enough clear cut chances. Without going into too much detail here, (we will cover this issue on another occasion), United’s combination play in the final third has been too slow and generally poor.
There is often a tendency at United to make allowance for young and especially home grown players, perhaps at time for too long. Rashford is a diamond who will be given time, Jose may not be quite so patient with others. Several of United’s older forwards may well leave this summer and even if Zlatan doesn’t he is likely to play a somewhat reduced role and will miss the start of next season due to his injury. What is clear is that United have a group of older players, several of whom are now past their best and a number of younger players most of whom must do better. The two that don’t fit this profile are Mata and Mkhitaryan who whilst they did exactly as was asked of them in Stockholm have been inconsistent; at times excellent, at times anonymous.
Pogba, United’s route beyond the pragmatic?
The other player to mention here is Paul Pogba which takes the conversation full circle. Pogba is world class but to get the most out of him Mourinho needs the play around him to go up a level; whether by recruitment or via the endeavours of the existing squad.
What is clear is that United must build a team around Pogba and for this reason we would anticipate that Jose may well look to strengthen right along the whole forward line. Pogba is strong has amazing balance, he is technically skilful, he has great vision and a good passing range and like all great players he seems to have more time on the ball. He isn’t a prolific goal scorer and may never be, which means that he needs to be surrounded by other players on his wavelength who can benefit from what he has to offer. Only by building around Pogba can Jose Mourinho hope to take United to another level, to a place where they score more goals, a place beyond the pragmatic.