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Where are Manchester United heading under Jose Mourinho?

The Manchester Derby – the game every Premier League side was eagerly awaiting. Conte, Pochettino, Wenger and Klopp were on the edge of their seats, waiting for the result. The outcome had two implications, and two implications only – either City pull away from the rest of the pack for good, or United pull City back towards the pack.

For United, Pogba had got himself suspended for the biggest game of their season (till date), and City were without John Stones, who I firmly regard as the second most important player to wear the sky blue shirt this season. United were 40 unbeaten at home, the last team to beat them? Manchester City, more than 440 days ago.

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It was not a pleasant sight for the United faithful, as the first half saw Jose’s men completely outplayed by Guardiola’s. Mourinho shocked the world by naming 4 attacking players in his XI for the big one, a clear indication that he was going to go for the win, as of course, he surely had to. But that proved to be completely false, as United showed no initiative whatsoever, with no pressing and 11 men inside their own half. City were unfortunate to go into the break level, but their class showed over the course of the next 45, as they scored from yet another set piece en route to a comprehensive win if there ever was one.

What followed the celebrations in the dressing room became a spectacle of controversy for the foreseeable future, as Jose Mourinho apparently stormed the away dressing room with a few of his players and staff, deeming City’s loud music to be disrespectful. The encounter saw him (reportedly) soaked in milk and water, with punches being thrown, leaving Mikel Arteta bloodied.

Here, I’d like to point out the now seemingly transparent Jose Mourinho approach to any big game with any significance, a little something known to the football world as ‘Parking the Bus’. Naming four attacking players in your lineup when all the onus is on you to get the points to keep the title race alive is not something that should be surprising in the least. Admittedly, when he took on Arsenal, his side went in with a clear motive – They pressed high, won the ball back in dangerous areas and fully exploited an Arsenal back line who just didn’t know what hit them. Against City, there was no initiative whatsoever. The first 45 minutes were a display of ‘Attack v/s Defence’, with Martial and Rashford playing as wing backs, in addition to a back four I may add. Lingard was left to stop Fernandinho, a job he failed at, and Lukaku was made to help out defensively. Effectively, United had rolled over and allowed City to do as they pleased.

Lukaku is a big, tall, strong striker with a quick change of pace. In a nutshell, not someone you’d like to defend against. When your striker and wingers are being made to defend, that cannot be called showing initiative. Lukaku’s strength isn’t playing with his back towards goal and holding up play, it’s when he’s charging at defenders, when he’s been fed the ball in good areas. The style United adopted effectively cut him off from the game in every attacking sense. A centre forward with his stature should never be inside the half way line. As Dion Dublin said, “If I’m playing as a striker, I wanna stand there in their half, and keep two centre halves with me. Then you play me the fight ball, and we’ll build from there”. To clarify, a fight ball is essentially a long ball hoofed up from deep which the centre half and the centre forward compete for, about the beginning and end of United’s attacking Arsenal in the derby.

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Secondly, Mourinho premediates his every single move. He’s quite similar to Guardiola in that respect, but Mourinho’s moves are off the pitch, Pep’s are on it. He made a point of City’s players going down as a result of the breeze, possibly to make the match official think twice before giving away any dead ball opportunities. He then barged into the City dressing room in the aftermath of the game, when the ‘street fight’ ensued. As many journalists are considering it, quite possibly to draw attention away from how bland his football was in the Derby, and how they were outplayed, to a surprisingly high degree.

Thirdly, City were in the front seat, and they knew it. When City started time wasting, even then it was so hard for United to get the ball off them. Right in front of the away fans, and much to their jubilation, De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva kept kicking the ball at Young and Lindelof, winning successive throw ins. It wasn’t just antagonising for the United fans and players, it was a sign of how City were strutting their stuff away to their closest rivals. They showed no esteem whatsoever as they kept bouncing the ball off their counterparts for a solid 3 minutes. This was their way of retaliating against the physical prowess of the United players, which was used to good effect during the game.

Now, many would say Jose Mourinho was brought in by United purely because Pep Guardiola’s signature had been secured by their ‘Noisy neighbours’. United fans would have loved Pep to take them to the pinnacle they fell from after Sir Alex’s departure, but he didn’t want United. The United board were responding to City’s ambition and action when they offered the job to the Portuguese. Last season, it was crystal clear who came out on top. City took 4 points off United in the league, but their season’s best achievement was Champions League qualification. United matched that, and raised City up 2 major trophies, which City had no answer to.

However, and this is the 4th point, last season, City’s players, particularly their defenders, made so many errors whilst in possession, it made for excruciating viewing for the fans, myself included. I remember Liverpool at home, a fixture in which John Stones tried dribbling out from the heart of defence on at least 4-6 occasions, got dispossessed majority of the times and had to scramble back. In the post-match conference, Guardiola heaped praise on him. I distinctly remember him saying, “It’s not easy playing as a defender in my team.” Otamendi was likewise, as was the case with Kolarov, with Leroy Sane and even Sterling. This season, Stones had the best passing accuracy in all of Europe’s top 5 leagues, was absolutely indispensable to the squad and was arguably Europe’s best ball playing centre half on form.

Getting the ball of a Sane in his stride is a nightmare, and Sterling has had more touches in the opposition’s box that any other PL player. Otamendi is still a little shaky in possession, but his long diagonals have a lot more accuracy, and he frequently dribbles confidently out of defence and gets among and goals. Guardiola’s players know there is only reward and praise for trying out anything positive. He applauds their effort when they make a mistake with an otherwise positive intent, and points out how it could have been better achieved. In brief, he improves his players. Mourinho, on the other hand, it a purely results oriented manager. His style is purely dependant on the final scoreline and the final league position. That is probably the reason he hasn’t had a long stint at any club he’s managed. If the players don’t feel excited coming into training, if they don’t feel like they’re going to improve as players every single day, there’s no motivation for them to show up anymore, which causes the manager to lose his dressing room.

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Next, whatever Mourinho achieves and doesn’t achieve at United, he will always be compared to Sir Alex. Sir Alex famously started 8 defenders against Arsenal back one fine day, and scored 8 goals. He improved his players, he made his players happy to play, and eager to try out new skills and techniques. The year he resigned and Moyes stepped in, the latter struggled with the squad he had inherited, and understandably so. It just goes on to highlight the impact a great manager can have on his players, and is probably the difference between a good and a great manager. Speaking of SAF and his team, if they were sitting in the locker room and hearing City’s loud celebratory music, they’d say, “You hear that lads? That should be us. We will do whatever it takes to absolutely cement that the roles are reversed the next time we play them.” What did Mourinho and his team do? Went in for a brawl.

And lastly, Manchester City have been the superior side in Manchester ever since Sir Alex left, and that, I’m sure irks the red half of Manchester more than anything else in the world. There was Arsenal, there was Chelsea, there was Nottingham, but they were all temporary – United eventually and inevitably came out on top. This time it’s different. Not only do United look visibly second best, this City side seems to have no visible limits as to what they can achieve. That’s the biggest worry for United. Jose Mourinho is an absolutely phenomenal manager with a record few can match and hope to replicate. But just as the case with Messi and Ronaldo, one’s success and failure is always measured not in absolute terms, but in terms of how well off the other is. At any other club, Jose would be doing a wonderful job as things stand. But wonderful won’t cut it for United – At least not when their city rivals are breaking records every time they step out on to the pitch, redefining beautiful football in the process.

It’s when City beat United away, and subsequently Old Trafford becomes a fortress for over 400 days, with no team able to beat them there, and then City visit once more and run the show from first whistle to last, at nowhere near 100% efficiency, and party in the locker room, confetti and all, do you wonder if United will ever be able to take back the city which they once ruled for decades on end. And it’s when you wonder about that, do you think – Is Jose Mourinho the one who can, from a United perspective, set it straight?

Written by Ayush Verma.

Ayush Verma

20. Student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Manchester City correspondent for 90MAAT

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