Are Mourinho and Manchester United judged too harshly after the Juventus defeat?
When Manchester United walked onto the pitch at Stamford Bridge on Saturday many expected to see an outfit rejuvenated by an extraordinary Newcastle United comeback but nonetheless a team that would eventually succumb to the growing momentum of Maurizio Sarri's Chelsea. Ever since going 2-0 down at halftime against Newcastle, a change seemed to be brewing at Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho revealed that during the halftime team talks everyone had opened up their hearts about what tactical changes should be made. That talk led to a second-half performance recalling the United of old. When the likes of Martial and Mata received the ball on the edge of the box they would not be short of options as red shirts flooded the Magpies box, eventually resulting in the Red Devils scoring three goals in just 20 minutes.
After the international break, Mourinho made an unexpected move, picking two Central Attacking Midfielders rather than his usual two men defensive midfield wall against top-six opponents. In partnering Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, a player sorely underused at United, was offered a chance to cement his place in the first team against Chelsea. He took the opportunity with both hands. The little Spaniard looked calm on the ball and provided United with that extra spark in an attack that ignited the Red Devils comeback. Tellingly, United lost much of their composure when Mata was substituted off.
Mourinho also selected the once-relegated Anthony Martial. Mata was instrumental for the Frenchman's first goal, his shot providing Martial with the opportunity needed for the Frenchman to calmly slot home. Martial had only started though. Again, he cut inside to fire home another. United were suddenly the positive force for which everyone yearned.
They next faced a massive tie in the Champions League against regular finalists Juventus. Even though the Red Devils ended up falling to a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford, the signs of improvement were still visible. United began slow again. Juve dominated the first half. Following the intermission, United pushed 10 yards higher up the pitch, became more aggressive but searched in vain for the equaliser. Even though his attack was not on song against the season's most difficult opponent to date, Mourinho appears to be calling the tune supporters wish to hear. It's just taking him too much time to find the beat.
The Portuguese's attitude is noticeably different, despite the pressure. In the summer, his negativity adversely affected the squad. At one point, he even questioned Ashley Young's heart for not returning early from holiday after the World Cup. United began sluggishly. Then there was the issue with Martial's extended leave for his son's birth in Paris. When the season began, there was Insta-gate. Pogba posted a carefree video during the EFL Cup match the team eventually lost on penalties. Mourinho grilled him about it in full view of Sky's cameras.
When the critiscism mounted at Chelsea, Mou lashed out. In Manchester, he's taken a step back.
It was still a surprise, though, when the entire bench rose to Mourinho's aid when a Chelsea assistant coach rubbed that game's equaliser in the boss' face before running down the tunnel. Not only did the squad back his play, the man himself eventually turned peacemaker, quickly accepting Maurizio Sarri and his assistant's apologies and refusing to make a meal of it in the press. Rarely does the Special One go on such a diet.
United face a hectic spell before the November break. The Manchester Derby looms on the horizon. If they are to come through without mud on their face, a steadfastly positive Jose might just be the key.