The five-point plan Jose Mourinho needs to follow to get Man United's season back on track
Published 19/09/2016 | 14:26
How can Jose Mourinho get Manchester United firing again?
1. Drop Wayne Rooney
In almost the same amount of time it takes an ageing Wayne Rooney to chunter from one end of the pitch to the other, Pep Guardiola was able to identify that Joe Hart was not playing at the required level, loan him to Torino, and wrap up a deal for a world-class(-ish) replacement. How United supporters must wish that Mourinho could be similarly decisive when it came to Rooney.
After taking the United job, Mourinho could not have been more clear on the role he envisaged Rooney playing under his stewardship. "For me he will be a 9, a 10, a nine-and-a-half but never a 6 or even an 8," Mourinho said — and yet against Watford it was Rooney who was tasked from dictating play from deep.
"Rooney was about as mobile and effective here as an oak wardrobe," was Jim White's take on it, and it's difficult to recall a worse Rooney performance. The captain repeatedly slowed down play, failing to play either a single through ball or create a solitary opportunity for the likes of Marcus Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic playing in front of him.
That's not to say that Mourinho should pack his captain's bags and flog him out to Italy to keep Hart company, but the time has surely come for Rooney to be dropped and for the likes of Juan Mata, or even £27million summer signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, to be given a chance to nail down that position.
Rooney still has a role at the club, but that surely has to be as a second-choice centre-forward, to help lessen the load on Ibrahimovic. Mourinho cannot allow his loyalty to Rooney cloud his judgement.
2. And sort out the midfield
Manchester United's midfield is a mess. The club signed Paul Pogba for a world record fee, and yet Mourinho appears to have very little idea how to best utilise him. So far he has been playing alongside Marouane Fellaini, but they make for an odd couple: both too offensive, exuberant and ill-disciplined to be stationed in front of the defence alongside one another.
United were crying out for the inclusion of either Michael Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin against Watford, a ball-playing central midfielder with the discipline and positional sense to dominate the middle of the park. Jamie Carragher's observation that Pogba is playing "like a kid on the schoolyard," is an astute one, but it wouldn't be a necessarily negative thing were he to be playing alongside a true defensive midfielder.
And then there are the wingers. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford started against Watford this weekend, with both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard disappearing from the match day squad after their Manchester derby nightmares. But both kept on cutting inside far too often, starving the likes of Rooney, Pogba and Fellaini of space in the middle, and allowing Watford's five-man midfield to thrive out wide.
One of Rashford's greatest strengths is his willingness to attack his man, but if he is selected to start, he should really be picked alongside a true wide player to ensure that United's attack does not become too narrow.
Of course, working out how to accommodate quality players such as Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford is a nice headache for Mourinho to have: he just needs to settle on his strongest five midfielders and make sure that they compliment one another.
3. Bring back the ball players
The troubled professional relationship that exists between Jose Mourinho and Juan Mata is well documented, with Mata admitting to having “no relationship and no dialogue” with Mourinho at Chelsea, after moving to United.
And it looked as if history was about to repeat itself shortly after Mourinho succeeded Louis van Gaal this summer, with Mata visibly frustrated after being substituted just 27 minutes after being sent on during United’s Community Shield victory over Leicester City at Wembley.
But Mourinho then seemed to change his mind, starting Mata in United's first three league games this season, which all ended in victory. Mata was then dropped to the bench for the Premier League matches against Manchester City and Watford, both of which United lost? A coincidence...?
United were especially poor against Watford, when Daley Blind was also forced to make way, Mourinho preferring to play Chris Smalling because of his physical presence. But with both Mata and Blind out of the side, United desperately struggled to create, with Smalling and Bailly instead choosing to begin attacks by spraying balls out wide.
Mourinho needs to accommodate at least one of his true ball-players, who have the ability to begin attacks by moving the ball through the middle of the pitch, especially when he selects wingers who like to cut inside so frequently, as Rashford and Martial were wont to do against Watford.
4. Foster a sense of team spirit
Jose Mourinho did not mince his words after the Watford defeat, and singled out left-back Luke Shaw for criticism:
"The first Man City goal and this second goal (conceded against Watford); you can find incredible similarity.
"Kolarov has the ball in a difficult situation in the corner and my player, instead of going up and pressing, decides to give him space. Today for the second goal, (Nordin) Amrabat on the right side, our left back is 25 metres distance from him, instead of five metres. But even at 25 metres, then you have to jump and go press. But no, we wait.
"This is a tactical but also a mental attitude. In a couple of weeks, everything like this becomes perfect. That's my job."
Given that Luke Shaw is still only 21-years-old, returning from a significant injury lay-off, and that there were poor United performances all over the pitch, Mourinho's very public criticism of the player seems misguided. His comments follow his acknowledgement after the Manchester derby that he withdrew Lingard and Mkhitaryan because of their "poor individual performances."
At Chelsea, it all began to go wrong for Mourinho when he began too regularly criticising his own players in the press, and his eventual downfall was paved when he accused his players of betrayal three times after a 2-1 defeat away to Leicester City.
There's absolutely no suggestion the United squad is even as remotely divided as Mourinho's Chelsea were this time last season, but if his fledgling United team are to succeed they will need a strong team spirit which will simply not be fostered by public criticism of his own players.
5. Take the cup competitions seriously
Taking Manchester United to the top of the Premier League is naturally Jose Mourinho's top priority, but that doesn't mean that he should cut the cup competitions short shrift.
Against Watford, United's bench featured Memphis Depay, Juan Mata, Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Ashley Young and Ander Herrera. All are quality players. The club also possess one of the strongest second-string XI's in the league. They should be challenging on every front, and there is little excuse for results like the disappointing 1-0 Europa League defeat to Feyenoord.
And yet Mourinho failed to motivate his players for the match. “It is a competition where we are and that’s the reality," he grumbled ahead of the fixture. "We must find that motivation that I found myself already and I have to pass that motivation on to the players because I know the Europa League is not the big dream of every big player.”
As motivational speeches go, it's hardly up there with We shall fight on the beaches. And yet participation in the Europa League is a superb opportunity for United. Competition for places is so fierce at Old Trafford at the moment that Mourinho's players should be chomping at the bit to strut their stuff at any given opportunity, and impressive victories will help to lift the mood of the club.
Manchester United are a club used to not only winning matches but winning trophies, and Mourinho has the resources to challenge on every front.