Jose Mourinho laments having too much of a good thing
Following Manchester United’s extremely fortunate win over Brighton, Jose Mourinho suggested his side failed to score because he had fielded “too many attacking players.” Most impressively, the Portuguese kept a straight face while uttering that seemingly definitive oxymoron.
In part, he was able to remain serious because there was an element of truth to the remark. As he went on to explain, the four attackers he sent out to begin the match, Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, and Juan Mata, all tend to make forward runs. In doing so, they isolated Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic in midfield. Brighton was able to establish numbers centrally, ganging up on the pair. The Seagulls dominated possession more than expected, particularly in the first half, keeping United from gathering any attacking momentum.
Mourinho’s analysis went deeper, noting his quartet failed to beat defenders with sufficient frequency in one-v-ones. He singled out Juan Mata for being especially poor.
The criticism stings on a personal level. Before the match, I had recommended Mourinho utilise the Spaniard in the number ten role. Among United’s deep attacking corps, Mata possesses the best vision and passing skills in the final third. All the rest, save perhaps Zlatan Ibrahimovic, instinctively engage defenders, passing mostly when they are overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, Mata proved unequal to the task. His fatal flaw wasn’t running at defenders. Rather, it was failing to run away from them. Time and again upon receiving a pass, he was ambushed from behind while surveying his options.
As a huge Mata fan, it’s tempting to blame poor communication, as though his teammates weren’t shouting a warning when Brighton players closed from his blind spot. Yet, the former Chelsea man was the only United player regularly ambushed in this fashion. Poor communication would have affected the entire XI. The plain truth is time on the ball is a rare commodity in the Premier League. Mata can’t afford to slow up when sizing up the defence.
It would also be nice if he had at least one teammate coming to him when he collected the ball. If Martial, Rashford, and Lukaku are all running channels, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia overlapping on the flanks, Matic and Pogba hustling to catch up to play, Mata is momentarily isolated. Nor has he the size to shield the ball from defenders with his body. He needs help.
Mourinho likely regrets his number eight lacks power and muscle. Yet, it’s his own fault his tactics exposed Mata’s shortcomings. One from Lukaku, Martial and Rashford, should have been offering Mata a pressure release valve. Probably the Belgian, whose assigned territory is the width of the eighteen-yard-box.
Events after the hour-mark proved Mourinho has a different solution in mind. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, still working himself into match fitness, entered the fray.
I’ve said it before, the Swede’s passing instincts are sublime. Unlike Mata, he often knows where he will send the ball before it arrives at his feet. Being ten inches taller likely helps, like a leopard perched on a rock, surveying the savannah.
In the final half-hour, there was a noticeable up-tick in United’s ball movement. They also held the ball in the final third much longer. Ibra was the reason.
When he holds up play, his large frame makes it difficult for players to knock him off the ball from behind. He can wait for matters to develop, and does. He has a nose for the ball, too, knowing when to be on the left, the right, or to drop back to collect it.
Some new members in the United squad will have to adjust to his expectations they will move more without the ball than with it. Zlatan will let them know, however.
At one point he retreated to the halfway line to take possession. As the big Swede stood over the ball, a Brighton defender in front of him, another approached from the right. He turned to the left, where Nemanja Matic stood, perhaps thirty feet away, his way forward entirely clear.
Ibra waited for him to move.
Matic waited for the ball.
With the Brighton defenders nearly on him, Ibra disgustedly released a slow diagonal pass into the open space. You could almost see the Serb jump as though he’d been shot before haring off after the ball.
Rashford, Martial, Mata, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have all grown accustomed to anticipating Ibra’s improvisational flick-ons and back-heels. Lukaku, who will likely be partnering him, will need to get up to speed quickly. If he does, expect his goal drought to end.
A move begun from midfield by the Swede offered promise. He found the Belgian in the right flat, then moved to the top of the box, from where he immediately redirected the return ball to Pogba, waiting behind him. He then rounded his own marker to complete the give-and-go with a low shot just wide. The chanced would have died on the vine had Lukaku not curled to the outside after chesting down the movement's initial pass, creating space for Zlatan to exploit.
With a healthy Ibrahimovic in the middle, Mata will likely return to the bench, or the right flank should Mkhitaryan prove unable to provide his ‘A’ game more consistently. Anthony Martial will likely struggle for minutes, too. His game is to cut inside from the left flank, which will crowd Ibra and Lukaku in the middle. Marcus Rashford’s endline runs will afford them more space.
This isn’t to say Ibra will be an ideal number ten, although he foresaw his new place immediately upon Lukaku’s signing. At 36, he is too slow on the ball even without a surgically repaired knee. A trequartista or, as Zlatan’s healthy, Serie A-educated ego more likely refers to the position, a fantasista, must carry the ball now and then to exploit defenders who drop off too readily. Dribbling has been the worst aspect of Ibra's game at United.
No, Mourinho needs a genuine playmaker to complete his Manchester United rebuild. If he can sign one, he won’t have to complain about his attacking players failing to score so often.