How Jose Mourinho has finally given Manchester United their identity back
Unbeaten in 14 games in all competitions, and in the midst of an eight-match winning run that has reignited talk of a Manchester United title challenge and propelled Jose Mourinho’s team into the fourth round of the FA Cup and the last 32 of the Europa League.
They are also through into the semi-finals of the League Cup. A two-legged tie against Hull City is all that separates the club from a chance to claim their first trophy of the Portuguese’s reign on their third visit to Wembley in 18 months. However, it is more than just an upturn in results that has got Old Trafford bouncing again.
Winning ugly has never been a problem for their supporters – so long as the team was winning, of course – but United have begun to play with style and panache once again under Mourinho. After 10 months of negativity and regression in the aftermath of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, overseen by the ill-fitting and fatalistic David Moyes, followed up by two seasons of despondency as Louis van Gaal turned the dressing room into a classroom, the football has become thrilling once again.
The scarcity of shots and chances during the Dutchman’s reign has been replaced by the opulence of watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan cut loose against opponents in the Premier League, Europa League and the domestic cups. While Moyes sought to down-play and manage expectations, Mourinho has embraced the demands of the job.
Van Gaal did better in front of the media than the former ex-Everton boss, at least at first. Yet his re-education programme never quite made the progress he needed it to in order for the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager to allow his players take a step on to turn their cautious conservatism in possession into the sort of automatic, collective play fans craved. Mourinho has taken the team in a different way, shunning the need to work to some kind of bespoke, refined system due to the sheer amount of individual quality he has at his disposal.
Everything is put in place to serve the squad’s match-winners and then get out of the way to allow them to play. The growing chemistry between the likes of Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan, balanced and supported by the less glamourous work of team-players such as Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick and Daley Blind, has enabled them to roll mid-table teams over and dominate their cup ties so far.
Question marks still hang over their record against rivals at the very top of the league, however. Besides beating Tottenham Hotspur 1-0, Mourinho has struggled in his showdowns with the likes of Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte so far. With the visit of Liverpool on the horizon, and a chance for the Portuguese to show that his in-form team can take the initiative against the Reds rather than just set-up to contain and frustrate them as he did at Anfield back in October, there will be many more opportunities to show what they can do against more major foes.
Yet such is the standard of football that United are now playing, Mourinho is amassing a well of support that should see him through any further patches of poor form and bad results. There was a sense that as soon as any ground was lost by Moyes and Van Gaal, neither manager looked likely to regain their momentum, in part due to their lack of bravado and the stylistic deficiencies on the pitch during their tenures.
At a club that has always prided itself as a traditional bastion for good football, with flying wingers, attacking player bursting with flair and the sort of direct, muscular midfielders with the athleticism and skill to get a grip of games and power through opponents, there are certain needs to play the right way, with the right values. That may not convince opposition fans who have come to see Old Trafford as the home of a club more than ready to buy success and do whatever it takes when it suits them, but there are expectations to be met.
Mourinho himself arrived in Manchester as a manager who title-winning pedigree was deemed to be insufficient to match the profile of a side that placed an onus on blooding youth and going on the attack to win games, not avoid defeat. His advocates will argue that his teams at Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid were not as cagey as they have come to be seen yet he has changed tack of late.
Their identity didn’t exactly disappear prior the Portuguese’s appointment but he has succeeded in bringing it back to the fore, and exorcising some of his demons too. He left the Blues for a second time in 2015 as a coach who had spoiled the formula for what had looked like a period of long-term dominance at Stamford Bridge.
United have offered him a second chance, and after an uncertain start, in which the football didn’t always shine and his old habits loomed over his work, he appears to be taking it. The signs were there that he was turning his squad into a “Mourinho team” earlier this season when in fact, it appears that it he is he who is transforming himself into a worthy manager of Manchester United.