Jose Mourinho fixing what isn't broken
In the wake of this lost Premier League season’s winter window, it’s instructive to remember Jose Mourinho’s early days at Manchester United.
On one such day, perhaps after his first training session at the Carrington training complex now redubbed for commercial benefit, he might have walked into the dressing room to come face to face with a disturbing sight. On the room’s far side sat Wayne Rooney in an overstuffed arm chair, feet up on a matching ottoman, engrossed in the drama playing out on a portable telly, sipping a metaphorical pina colada.
Mourinho would have walked to the middle of the room. Distracted by the movement, Wazza would have looked up, nodded, exchanged pleasantries, then returned his attention to Coronation Street. The Portuguese, having replied in kind, would look to the door, back to the comfortably ensconced player, then to the door again, mentally calculating how to fit Wazza and his large chair through the exit without inviting too much fuss.
Fast forward to present day and it’s job done. Rooney is chasing Alan Shearer’s Premier League goal record in an Everton shirt and Mou has just signed a contract extension to remain at Old Trafford into the next decade.
He’s also signed Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal while unloading the now-unwanted Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the Gunners. While the move was unarguably genius, in that it kept Sanchez from Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, it was also a bit like buying a used car, otherwise referred to as someone else’s problem.
Sanchez’s ego, competitive nature, and fiery temper had combined to wear thin his welcome at the Emirates. It might have done so at Barcelona, where the Chilean visibly chafed at playing second fiddle to Lionel Messi in his lone season at the Nou Camp. Of course, he’s proved his point to a degree in South America, having now defeated the Argentine twice in succession for the Copa America title. Trophies are how Alexis measures his own worth.
Mourinho welcomed that but it comes at a price. There will be conflict in the dressing room. Perhaps remembering that, Guardiola happily congratulated Jose on his small coup. There is also the matter of squad balance, which Manchester City has and United does not. The Red Devils squad continues to list heavily to port, with Sanchez, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford all thriving on the left and no one able to complement their talents on the other side.
In the new man’s first Premier League match, United journeyed to Wembley to face Tottenham. Mourinho’s side found itself down 1-0 after just eleven seconds. A talented broadcast director switched to the image of a stunned Sanchez, perhaps wondering whether he was still with Arsenal.
A Phil Jones own goal completed the scoring before the half was out. Had Harry Kane been able to connect with any of the several opportunities he was afforded, the final tally would have been worse. Instead, United’s malaise seemed to affect the Spurs talisman as his quest for a Premier League century went unfulfilled again.
I say malaise because the entire United XI looked like a Sunday side at the Hackney Marshes. Jones was to blame for both goals, losing a header to Kane that led to Christian Eriksen’s opener, then wrong-footing a cross into the roof of David de Gea’s goal to sew the armholes in United’s sweater closed.
Meanwhile, Martial was as fumbling as Harry Kane, having been shifted to the right side to accommodate Sanchez, whose numbers pale in comparison to the Frenchman’s. Paul Pogba, assigned to partner Nemanja Matic in a deep-lying role, was continually out of position. When the ball came to him, Moussa Dembele was there to match him physically. Others always arrived in support to harry or hack the ball away from the United star. When Pogba lost possession, Matic was isolated and outnumbered in front of his own defence.
Juan Mata came on for the Frenchman, who may or may not have picked up a knock, as part of a double substitution shortly after the hour. Martial then moved back to the left, and Sanchez into the middle. Mata set up on the right, but his lack of pace only opened the door for Dele Alli to ratchet up his game another notch.
To add an appropriately sad footnote to the evening, Marouane Fellaini, the other half of that double substitution, tweaked something or other and had to come off. Mourinho was forced to send a waiting Marcus Rashford back to the bench for Ander Herrera, ending the younger player’s run as the only United man to feature in every match this campaign. With Sanchez in the squad, the sit-down is likely a harbinger of things to come.
All this moving about, this interchanging of pieces by Mourinho, is why I wished you to hearken back to his time with Wayne Rooney. While sorting out his initial squad, the Portuguese was constantly asked whether Wazza would be deployed as a deep-lying playmaker. He ruled out the notion, saying that for him Rooney would always be a striker, and that he preferred to fill his team with specialists.
That has largely been true. He has only three jacks-of-all-trades and two, Danny Blind and Matteo Darmian see very little match time. Only Ashley Young is a regular in the Portuguese’s team sheet.
Yet, to fit Sanchez into his eleven, Mourinho asked Martial and Pogba to adapt to less familiar roles. The result was an ignominious end to the side’s two eight-game unbeaten runs, both overall and in the Premier League.
It’s only one match, but Jose is faced with a choice going forward. Does he continue to displace his preexisting squad or ask the tetchy Sanchez to fill a role other than the one to which he is best suited? Too many specialists spoil the broth.
Even with the disappointing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the United team was a tasty feast in attack. Suddenly, it’s spoiled milk.
In rationalizing the Sanchez deal, Mourinho claimed there wasn’t sufficient “competition” within the squad. Typically, that’s code for ‘my players aren’t good enough’. His remedy was to depose arguably his most productive player. Martial has 11 goals and nine assists in 33 matches for United this season. He also pushed Pogba, who, despite time lost to injury and suspension, has been keeping abreast of City’s Kevin de Bruyne as his team’s main creator. He has ten assists to go with three goals in just 21 games.
Mourinho played up the injuries within the squad when he used the word “competition," but the man loves misdirection. In truth, he probably felt there wasn’t sufficient desire. Sanchez will provide that by unsettling the group. Whether or not that proves healthy is a matter for time to decide. It is how Mourinho operates, however, so no one should be surprised.
Yet, if the boss is to ultimately fix the side he has now broken, he must find an attacking winger whose talent rivals Martial and Sanchez, but whose most fertile hunting ground is the opposite flank.
Then, and only then, will the Portuguese be able to sit back in his own overstuffed armchair to sip a pina colada and enjoy his favourite soap.