Why Jose Mourinho is so desperate to bring in the right defensive midfielder at Manchester United
When finishing the usual forensic analysis of his squad for summer transfer planning, Jose Mourinho last season decided he wanted to enhance five areas of the Manchester United team, but there were two specific positions he saw as higher priority than the rest.
One was obviously a goalscorer, and that has now been sorted with the signing of Romelu Lukaku - amid some sensation. The other is beginning to generate the same amount of commotion as that search given the situation of the targets, and is by many accounts even more important to Mourinho, the task he is most concerned with.
That is the pursuit of a defensive midfielder, a fulcrum, and is about so much more for the Portuguese than just necessarily filling a position in his team. It is about filling one of his real key positions, from where so much of the manager’s idea of football emanates.
Mourinho believes the pinpointing of the right individual for that role was “essential” in all of his best teams, and feels one of the major problems United had last season was that there was not enough balance in central midfield due to the lack of a natural holding player. That had more of an effect than just an improvised midfield. It meant the defence was much more exposed, and ensured attacking players - particularly Paul Pogba - didn’t quite have the same freedom he would have liked, or even the same assurance, so they could more willingly go forward.
Mourinho’s defensive midfielders offer that “balance to the team offensively and defensively”, but also so much more. These are the players he has variously described as his “tactical leader”, his “assistant coach on the pitch” and who he most charges with interpreting and applying the manager’s approach. They are the centre of the most organised part of the team, and are absolutely key to releasing the more expressive players in the team, allowing the whole side a greater fluency.
Even another of Mourinho’s true loyalist lieutenants in Didier Drogba recognised Claude Makelele as “the essential element” in their 2004-06 Chelsea side.
Whether United can benefit from a player as influential as him, Porto’s Costinha, Internazionale’s Esteban Cambiasso or Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso remains to be seen, but it is something that will be demanded of Eric Dier, Nemanja Matic, Radja Nainggolan, Julian Weigl or whoever does come to occupy that role. It is also thereby easy to see why Mourinho has been so interested in Matic again, even if he was good not quite as deeply great as his predecessors for the Portuguese. The simple fact is that the United manager trusts him.
Matic knows what Mourinho expects from their time together at Chelsea, and already deeply understands the manager’s call-card words to his defensive midfielders of “position, stability, control”.
All of this is precisely why the Portuguese would also prefer a player for the position who does not require any time to adapt so that United can begin firing straight away, but paramount is just being able to do the role, of offering more than just sitting and holding. It is about that player understanding, as Mourinho first began to comprehend himself with Costinha, his first great defensive midfielder at Porto in 2003.
“He was an essential player because he spoke to me a great deal, and he liked to understand the practices, the whys and wherefores,” Mourinho told biographer Luis Lourenco. “Thus, I had thought that in my absence, Costinha would be a vital player, as he would convey my ideas on the pitch. Costinha would basically be my ‘assistant coach’ on the pitch.”
Mourinho has offered similar words about all of Costinha’s successors, and they offer insight as to why he sees this as such a crucial signing now, why it could be so transformative for the team.
Of Makelele: “The emotional leaders are [John] Terry and [Frank] Lampard. The tactical leader is Makelele.”
Of Alonso: “He already acts like a coach when he is on the field.”
Of Cambiasso: “He thinks quickly and is tactical, he knows everything about football. He encourages teammates to press and helps the defenders in the centre... he reminds of Fernando Redondo.”
The last quote feels especially relevant to United, given that it is what both the team as a whole and players like Pogba as individuals need. They need a player in that position who has the solidity to protect them but also the intelligence to signal when to push, when to spring the rapid counter-attacks that have really marked Mourinho’s best sides apart.
For a United side that were last season so often withdrawn, uninspired or just awkwardly ill-fitting, such a player would instantly allow the side to be solid but also be solid much higher up the pitch, while freeing up those more creative players.
This is also why Nainggolan would be such an intriguing signing since he has been more aggressively attacking than all of those players, although it seems it would take a hugely aggressive approach to prize him from Roma, given they have so far made it firmly clear he is not for sale. Tottenham Hotspur are close to that position with Dier despite his willingness to move to Old Trafford, while Chelsea remain reluctant to do business over Matic after the hijacking of their Lukaku bid. That has left United looking at Weigl as a back-up as well at something of an impasse, although Mourinho is determined to get a deal done.
It has come to the point where he had instructed the hierarchy to sign one of Matic or Dier, and this could yet be more protracted than the purchase of a striker. Mourinho will feel it’ll be worth as much to the team, even if the actual price is not quite so high, albeit at £50m or even £60m.
That’s the market, that’s the necessity.
It might not be the finishing touch to Mourinho’s United, but will be the building block of so much.
Independent News Service