Jose Mourinho has nothing left on the right
If the feud between Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho heats up again the Portuguese will have new ordnance to drop on his adversary.
The Alexis Sanchez deal is all but done and the United manager is set to ink a lengthy extension. By contrast the Chelsea hierarchy is making only half-hearted efforts to supply the Italian the tall “reference point” he desires up front, leading pundits to question Conte’s job security beyond this season. Mourinho can claim he’d rather be a “little man” with his club’s backing than a big one without.
Conte originally wanted a familiar face. The club wasn’t willing to meet Swansea’s asking price for Fernando Llorente. Alternatively, it’s been asking after the availability on loan of West Ham’s Andy Carroll and Stoke’s Peter Crouch. With apologies to Crouchie it’s a choice between fragility and senility. No wonder the Blues boss has taken on a resigned demeanor at recent pressers.
Meanwhile Mourinho has been given the man he wants and divested of the one he no longer does in one fell swoop. Sanchez in, Henrikh Mkhitaryan out.
In discussing the deal, the United manager has admitted he is not a fan of winter window business. Usually it indicates mistakes were made in the summer. Not so with the Chilean, he says. It’s simply a matter of striking while the iron is hot to significantly improve his team.
How significant is the improvement though? The Red Devils are already stacked on the left side of attack with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Further, whereas the young Englishman is one to stretch defences vertically, the Frenchman enjoys cutting inside onto his right foot exactly as Sanchez tends to do. Looking at the Premier League scoring table, Martial is two up on his potential replacement, nine goals to seven. He adds to his advantage when you factor in other competitions, reaching 11 goals total. The Chilean’s tally only increases by one.
Mourinho also characterized his new acquisition as long-term planning rather than filling a need.
The team is lacking nothing. It is not the point of lacking something or we desperately need something. It is just thinking about the improvement of the team in the future.
It’s unconvincing to say a team is complete when it is 12 points down the table with 15 matches remaining entering the weekend fixtures. Pep Guardiola’s side obviously has something Mourinho’s does not.
To be fair to the Special One, he could argue the difference is luck. Comparisons have been made between Kevin de Bruyne and Paul Pogba. The Belgian is often labeled more ‘consistent’. In the 23 Premier League matches previous to this round he had nine assists. Pogba had the same in ten fewer outings. Some people’s definition of consistent differs from mine. Had Pogba not been injured might the title race be closer?
Of course, a counterargument is discipline has widened the gap. Had Pogba not trod carelessly on Hector Bellerin, drawing a three-match ban, he and De Bruyne could have been compared on the same pitch. City might not have won the Manchester Derby. Pogba was also booked against Burnley in United's 1-0 victory today. Four or five Claret players attempted to egg him on after Mike Dean issued the card. So, the word is out.
Even conceding there might be a genuine title race if Pogba had played as many matches as his ginger counterpart, it’s still glossing over to say United is “lacking nothing.”
The best teams are balanced. City, for instance can stretch a defence down one flank with Raheem Sterling, the other with Leroy Sane. United will give right backs fits by throwing Martial, Rashford or now Sanchez at them, while having renaissance man Luke Shaw overlapping in the bargain. On the other side, however, it’s just Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia. Two dangerous players, no doubt, but older and [cough] lacking for pace. Rashford has been taking some minutes on the right, but hasn't had the same impact he does on the far side.
United’s balance is checked by the comparative rarity of inverted wingers who cut in onto their left foot. While there are several world-class left-footers in Europe, almost all are tied down by their clubs.
Lionel Messi certainly isn’t going anywhere. Nor is Arjen Robben. United have been linked with Gareth Bale and Antoine Griezmann. Neither appears ready to leave his respective club in Madrid. Carlos Tevez and Denis Law aside, United rarely does business with its noisy neighbour, ruling out David Silva. Similarly, don’t expect Mo Salah to exchange one red kit for another. Mourinho himself missed the boat when he opted for Mkhitaryan over James Rodriguez.
That still leaves four interesting possibilities.
“Better Call” Saul Niguez would be a tough signing. He has spent his entire career in the Spanish capital, splitting his youth time between Real and Atleti, then making his bones with the latter. Why would he want to up stakes?
Paulo Dybala has come into his own at Juventus. He would be expensive, even more so because the Old Lady will likely bristle at suggestions she is becoming a feeder club for United, having already sold Pogba back to the Mancunians.
Nabil Fekir is intriguing. The 24-year-old was a promising second for Alexandre Lacazette last season. This campaign he already has 15 goals in Ligue 1 while forging a strong partnership with Mariano Diaz. Lyon CEO Jean-Michel Aulas is a hard negotiator but will do business.
Certainly the least expensive, perhaps most available option is Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio. Trapped below Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo in Zinedine Zidane’s pecking order, the 21-year-old has still managed to be involved in seven goals in just over 900 minutes. Zidane has already sold off Alvaro Morata and Mariano Diaz while sending James Rodriguez to Bayern on loan. He might be persuaded to let Asensio go.
The problem with the quartet is that none play regularly on the right flank. Dybala, Fekir, and Niguez operate centrally. Asensio is a left winger who plays more like Rashford. The first three might consider a move outside a step down. It would be taking a risk to assume Asensio would quickly adapt his game while also acclimating to a new culture and language.
The whole notion could also be an exercise in futility. Mourinho may be like the Japanese, who abhor symmetry. He may believe having inverted wingers on both sides makes his side too narrow. It may thrill the Portuguese that Mata is likely to be found almost anywhere on the pitch.
A pincer attack may also cramp Romelu Lukaku’s style more than it already is. The hulking Belgian tends to roll out to the right to create space for Martial and Pogba. He did so against Burnley, winning a 50-50 clearance near the touchline, fighting off his marker, then toeing the ball to the Frenchman poised on the other side of the box. Where would Lukaku find space if both wingers and his midfielder were all converging on the box?
At least Mourinho knows his board will back him in the market to rectify the situation, just as it has with Mkhitaryan, if United's left-leaning nature proves untenable. Antonio Conte can only wish he had such support.