After 104 days stuck in suspended animation, Manchester United finally escaped from sixth place in the Premier League table this weekend. Initially, it was by virtue of being leapfrogged by Everton on Saturday, but Arsenal’s defeat to West Bromwich Albion meant that the Red Devils could jump up to the heady heights of fifth if they could overcome Middlesbrough at the Riverside on Sunday.
United beat struggling Boro 3-1 to go within four points (with two games in hand) of cracking the top four. But it wasn’t a convincing display from José Mourinho’s men, and the Portuguese coach made some bizarre tactical and personnel decisions, something that has become a regular feature of the 20-time champions’ fixtures of late.
Leading 2-0 against the 19th-placed outfit, Mourinho elected to take off attacking midfielder Juan Mata for defender Marcos Rojo in the 69th minute. With Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young tucking in either side of a line of four natural centre-backs, United adopted an über-defensive approach against a team which averages less than a goal a game.
The switch invited pressure, which led to Rudy Gestede pulling one back for the home side, ensuring a nervy period for United until a Victor Valdés slip gifted Valencia a stoppage time goal to effectively end the contest.
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In recent weeks United fans have been singing about how “José’s playing the way the United should”, but few would agree that a back six against a side destined for the drop constitutes the “United way”.
Even before kick-off Mourinho’s team selection raised eyebrows. It appeared as though United would be lining up in the 3-4-3 formation they used against Chelsea in the FA Cup on Monday and versus Rostov in the Europa League on Thursday. But once the game started it became apparent that the Red Devils were in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Eric Bailly, their best central defender, at right-back and struggling positionally.
The Middlesbrough game doesn’t stand alone in terms of unusual tactical decision from Mourinho of late either. The aforementioned decision to play 3-4-3 against Rostov was a head-scratcher too. Matching Chelsea up in this manner at Stamford Bridge had sound logic behind it, and whether or not it might have yielded a more positive result than the 1-0 defeat had Ander Herrera not been sent off is a matter for debate. But United looked wholly uncomfortable in the system against the Russian side.
Furthermore, when Daley Blind had to leave the field due to injury in the 64th minute with score at 0-0, rather than bring on Young who has experience in the position, or make an attacking switch with either Marcus Rashford or Jesse Lingard, Mourinho elected to deploy Phil Jones at left wing-back.
The England international, a natural centre-back with experience in midfield, looked lost on the left flank, and offered no attacking threat. United went on to win 1-0 against Rostov to secure their passage to the quarter-finals, but it was far from a convincing performance.
Of course, at this stage of a long, arduous season some squad rotation is necessary to fend off fatigue. It’s not that fact that Mourinho is making changes that has caused surprise, but rather that many of the switches and mid-game interventions he has implemented have had little obvious logical base.
Earlier in the campaign the former Inter Milan and Real Madrid boss lamented the know-it-all negativity directed his way by a section of observers he labelled “Einsteins” — casual viewers telling an established and experienced, elite-level football coach how to run his team.
It’s easy to see how a man who has won everything there is to be won in European club football would take offence at being told he could be doing a better job by people who, tactically and managerially, he wouldn’t deem worthy of lacing his shoes, let alone walking a mile in them.
But it was also somewhat patronising to suggest that the people who care so deeply about the game, and invest so much of their time in football with no financial reward at the end of it, have no right to question the job he is doing.
It also displayed the trademark arrogance that the Mourinho persona has been built on over the last 15 years; the suggestion that he could have perhaps gotten a decision wrong, to him, is ludicrous.
This is no indictment of Mourinho’s time in charge at Old Trafford. There can be little doubt that, after the drab and uninspiring reigns of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, progress is being made under the Portuguese. United are harder to beat now than at any point during the post-Ferguson era and are, for the most part, playing some fairly entertaining football.
However, that progress has been glacial. Mourinho has a big job on his hands in Manchester, righting the wrongs of the last three seasons and perhaps even of the final years of Sir Alex Ferguson’s time at the helm. But, with the money spent and the apparent carte blanche he has been given over the day-to-day running of the club, it is reasonable to think that United might be a little further along the road to recovery than they are at this stage.
The recent examples of unusual selection decisions, coupled with the bizarre treatment of Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw, shows that, although the ship is moving in the right direction, Mourinho’s navigational skills aren’t always quite as sharp as he’d have you believe.