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Living hand to mouth with Mourinho

Thursday 16th August 2018

Two things make my life interesting these days. First, I’m a Manchester United fan. Second, I don’t like Jose Mourinho. I imagine the conflicting emotions are a bit like your mother remarrying. No can replace your dad.

Everything about Mourinho tells you he’s going to look after himself first, not the club. When he won the Champions League with Inter, he jockeyed for the Real Madrid job in the post-match interviews. Where's the loyalty?

Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t the ideal father. He had rows with players, press and referees. Phil Dowd will never eye a scone the same way again. The difference is Fergie dealt with Rafa Benitez face to face. He didn’t sneak up from behind after a defeat to poke him in the eye. Also, if you need a distraction, a referee with a padded waistline is fairer game than your female physio. The Scot would never throw a woman under the bus.

That said, neither boss is a gentleman. If mum likes the bad boys, well, you live with it. You’ll be watching, though, like a hawk. The new man in her life better do right by her or you’ll know the reason why.

Hence my current status as a United supporter. It’s not the most enjoyable.

To give Mourinho his due, he’s a winner. Between Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid, eight league titles appear on his CV with two Champions Leagues, a UEFA Cup and Europa League added. He hasn’t padded his waistline with domestic cups like Arsene Wenger. That isn’t United. We’re after top prizes, not consolation gifts.

If Mourinho was more trustworthy, I’d be inclined to let mum enjoy her fling, then move on. Instead, I’m worried about the state in which he’ll leave United.

Balance is the trait I most admired in Fergie squads. Seven years after the fact, I still can’t get over how, when wracked by injuries, he started seven defenders in a match against Arsenal, then dominated the game with a relentless, pressing attack. Again, with seven defenders. The midfield featured John O’Shea in the centre with Rafael and Fabio, the Da Silva twins, on the wings. Wenger never knew what hit him.

In 2011, this ridiculous Manchester United starting XI, whose heart would for all intents and purposes end their careers at Sunderland, pressed Arsenal into an embarrassing defeat.
In 2011, this ridiculous Manchester United starting XI, whose heart would for all intents and purposes end their careers at Sunderland, pressed Arsenal into an embarrassing defeat.

That's Ferguson. Mourinho tells you he wants to play attacking football but there's always a reason he cannot. Alexis Sanchez gave balls away against Leicester in the season opener like candy canes at Christmas. In his post-match interview, the boss claimed he wanted to send on Anthony Martial to find the crucial second goal--excuse me while I try to control my laughter--but had to consider Paul Pogba and Fred’s fitness in midfield.

Don’t misunderstand me. Mourinho made the correct decision going with Marouane Fellaini and Scott McTominay. He couldn’t leave an inexperienced Andres Pereira alone in midfield against the organised pressure Claude Puel was applying. After choosing Sanchez to start on the left, then watching developments unfold, there was no way Martial could play a part. But the audacity to claim he wanted the Frenchman out there after all he's said and done to the quiet winger in 2018 is astounding. The man tells you whatever he thinks you want to hear while he furthers his own agenda.

Here's my problem. Some managers cannot be trusted to do a job, like Wenger winning a title or Jurgen Klopp a final. Mourinho will do the job; he just cannot be trusted.

Sir Alex came at you in different ways. Mourinho never changes his method. Put him in charge at Barcelona, with Neymar still in the squad, or at Manchester City; he'll go to war with those 25 attack-minded players, insisting they defend. It's the only way he can play. It works for him.

Entering his third United campaign, Mourinho is fielding his third centre-half partnership. Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo dominated season one. Injury forced Jose to deploy Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in his second season. This year, personal choice, in Jones’ case perhaps the World Cup, prompted him to start Bailly and Victor Lindelof. The Swede was more active in Russia than Beeker for England, so I'm leaning towards personal choice.

The muppets usually create celebrity lookalikes after they become famous. Phil Jones was honoured in advance.
The muppets usually create celebrity lookalikes after they become famous. Phil Jones was honoured in advance.

On the other hand, we’re one game into the season; it’s too soon to make assumptions.

But here's the thing. In both full seasons, Mourinho’s defence was the Premier League’s second best. Bailly and Rojo shipped 29 goals to Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen's 26 for Tottenham in 2016/17. Last year, Smalling and Jones’ 28 was one worse than Pep Guardiola's three-man backline at City.

Digging deeper uncovers Mou’s last title-winning campaign at Stamford Bridge in 2014/15. Gary Cahill partnered an ageing John Terry. The duo topped the league, but allowed 32 goals. Why do United fans complain about the board saddling the boss with poor defenders when Mourinho’s defence-by-committee in Manchester is more effective than his last best effort at the Bridge?

Again, United fans attribute that to David de Gea’s penchant for big saves. I understand. He dazzles. The Spaniard collected more clean sheets in league play than any keeper in 2017/18. He lapped top-six netminders with saves [115]. He made Smalling and Jones look so much better making all those ridiculous stops.

Except, his passive style also made them appear dreadful. An overlooked statistic reveals De Gea’s weakness. He ranked 16th at coming out to claim balls in the air with, coincidentally, 16 all season. In 37 appearances, that’s less than one every other game. By comparison, Burnley’s Nick Pope claimed 52 and Swansea’s Lukasz Fabianski 42 to top the list. Petr Cech [33], Thibaut Courtois [26], Ederson Moraes [19] and Hugo Lloris [17]  were all better for top-six clubs. Simon Mignolet [15] and Loris Karius [10], who split time in Liverpool's net, combined to leave De Gea in the dust.

Moraes and Lloris’ numbers aren't too different from the Spaniard's but the pair faced fewer shots and chances. De Gea isn’t aggressive. At all. It leads to embarrassing gaffes like the one that spoiled Friday’s clean sheet.

In added time, Ricardo Periera's diagonal pass ripped through the box. Eric Bailly had position on the danger man making the run to meet it. He leaned and pulled on him, risking a penalty to cope with freakish natural speed augmented by fresher legs, letting the ball go. So did De Gea. It bounded off the post right into a waiting Jamie Vardy’s path, Bailly now on the wrong side.

De Gea gave Bailly a baleful stare while Vardy fetched the ball from the net, still down 2-1. What was the Ivorian to do? If he plays the ball while running towards his net, an own goal is the most probable outcome. Remember the penalty on Kyle Walker in England’s World Cup opener? No less a United defensive legend than Rio Ferdinand pointed out no centre-half wants to deal with the ball while facing his goal. De Gea should have played the cross, even if it meant knocking it beyond the post, over the touchline for a corner.

By nature, De Gea's not a commanding presence in goal. He prefers to leave as much work to his defenders as possible. Often, as in this case, too much. Even so, Mourinho prefers that to the alternative. At Real Madrid, he benched Iker Casilla. The Spanish legend loved coming out to challenge, never one to pick his spots. Opponents exploited the tendency. At every position, the Portuguese expects his players to drop back to soak up pressure, never to stick out their necks.

Again, it works for him. Even without a world-class defender, his defence always ranks among the best. On the other hand, despite obscene speed, strength, and technical wizardry, his attack always underwhelms.

One statistic tells you a club’s nature at a glance. It's goals:points ratio. On average, teams register a point for every goal scored, tending to finish the season within ten goals, give or take, of their point total. The slight difference between the two tells you whether a team is attack or defensive-minded. Last season, City scored 106 times in reaching 100 points, demonstrating their attacking intent. When the gap's greater than ten, said club is either woefully deficient or emphasises offence or defence to the extreme. They drive with their foot to the floor or park the bus. Burnley outdid themselves with 54 points from only 36 goals. Mourinho’s Red Devils crafted 81 from 68. Leave the keys with the valet, gentlemen.

United's numbers could, I think should, have been more equitable. Through their first 15 games in ‘17/18, United piled up 35 goals, one more than half their season total. The squad also garnered the expected 35 points to match while remaining the sole team yet to concede ten goals in the Premier League. Defensively sound, dangerous with the ball. Balanced.

In the 15th game, however, Paul Pogba stamped on Hector Bellerin. He missed the Manchester Derby. Mourinho sent the precocious Frenchman to la maison de chien, reverted to a defensive mindset, scored 33 goals in the final 23 games and signed Alexis Sanchez just when Anthony Martial appeared to be pulling United from its offensive funk with strikes in three consecutive matches.

It’s important to note those 33 goals produced 46 points, far more than anyone but Mourinho has a right to expect. In 2016/17, United scored 54 goals to claim 69 points, 15 the difference when most clubs stay within ten. When he won the title in 2014/15, Chelsea’s 87 points came from 73 goals. Mourinho consistently achieves more results with less attack than anyone. Even Antonio Conte needed 85 goals to deliver 93 points when he picked up the pieces from Mourinho’s disastrous, aborted campaign between Chelsea's two most recent titles.

On the other hand, it’s more important to consider what could have happened if United held their course. Thirty-five goals and as many points in 15 games translate to 89 in a full season, eight better than the total at which United finished under Mourinho’s iron fist. It'd still be a distant second to City but would distinguish the Reds from the chasing pack. A manager with a balanced approach can produce more with this United squad than Mourinho.

The worry, also a certainty, is the boss' constant pressure finally shatters the squad. United isn’t there yet although it's coming. As much as I revile the man, this season offers hope. Luke Shaw refuses to crumble under his abuse. Whatever his body fat quotient, the Englishman's playing like he once did for Southampton. At the World Cup, Pogba revealed the maturity to thrive even in Mourinho’s restricted environment.

United isn’t going to score often but might tally enough to surprise more attack-minded favourites, City and Liverpool. If that happens, it'll be the most frustrating title season I've endured as a United fan, more so than 2011, when Fergie was forced to field an XI with seven defenders. This season, the defensive overkill will be intentional, not a tactical ruse. It'll be a brutal, torturous slog. Then, who said life would be easy?

Today's Football Fixtures
Manchester United News
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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