Wednesday 20 February 2019

Aidan O'Hara: Mourinho's men aren't clowns but may never be great entertainers

Manchester United's Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Getty Images
Manchester United's Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Getty Images
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Journalists always ask the question in the hope of finding a little nugget to build an intro, a story or even a legend when a team overcomes the odds and takes a glorious victory from a seemingly inevitable defeat.

They might hear tales of a loser's medal being flung against the wall; young players stepping up to give an impassioned speech; managers beseeching their downtrodden team not to let their fans down or a yarn about some other irrelevance which, when the comeback is completed, suddenly becomes the beacon which guided players to victory.

Whenever the question of "what was said in the dressing room at half-time?" comes up, it begs the never-asked follow-up of "why wasn't the same thing said before the start of the match?".

After Saturday's comeback against Manchester City, Chris Smalling revealed that Jose Mourinho spoke of not wanting Manchester United to play the role of the clowns in City's victory circus.

Given the way that Smalling comically fell over in his attempt to stop Vincent Kompany from scoring, it's possible that the defender simply heard the word "clown" and decided to put a positive spin on it.

"At half-time we just talked about the pride, about the club," added Ander Herrara, which apparently nobody mentioned beforehand. "At this club you can never underestimate it."

Mourinho at least had the decency not to attempt to take much of the acclaim in the way that he justifiably did four years ago when Chelsea derailed Liverpool's Premier League title hopes.

Then, Mourinho was able to plug Tomas Kalas into his defensive system for what proved to be half of the Czech's entire Premier League career at Chelsea and still frustrate a team that, until that point, had swept all before them with their attacking effervescence.

Chelsea famously got lucky with Steven Gerrard's slip which resulted in Demba Ba's goal but, on Saturday, that luck came at the other end which had nothing to do with the tactics of the manager or pride, and is what makes it difficult to mark it down as a watershed moment for United and Mourinho.

In the early stages of the second-half, had Ilkay Gündogan's shot gone just under the bar rather than over it to put City 3-0 up, the world would never have heard of Mourinho's allegedly inspirational talk of clowns.

Like most great comebacks, it relied much on the wastefulness of the opponent and their inability to cope when momentum swung against them. In City's case, in two defeats against Liverpool and one against United, they have conceded nine goals in 44 minutes and shown a stunning inability to cope in the chaos.


Mourinho, however, has always preferred control to chaos and it's unlikely that United will ever again have as little to lose in a match as they did at 2-0 down, away to their biggest rivals who could win the league with a victory.

If a team with some of the best attacking talent in the league can't release the shackles at that point, they never will, which is why Mourinho can't have learned a great deal about his team.

Everybody knows that Paul Pogba is a potential match-winner but this is the same player who, in the last few weeks, was left out for tactical reasons and who Mourinho said "ask him" when questioned about why the Frenchman wasn't producing to his full potential.

When Pogba performs, so do United but Mourinho has yet to find a way of fully harnessing his ability to benefit the team or convince him to do some of the more mundane aspects which he seems to ignore.

At one stage in the first-half, Pogba was dispossessed by Raheem Sterling and fell on his backside in the centre circle. The ball broke to Alexis Sanchez, who slipped and allowed Sterling to regain the ball and dribble at the United defence.

Five seconds later, Pogba was back on his feet and in no position to affect a tackle. Sterling played it to Leroy Sane, City won a corner and Kompany scored.

The blame for the goal itself doesn't lie with Pogba but, way beyond his hair colour or social media output, it is the sort of thing that must drive Mourinho crazy.

Some of the best players in the world can't do what Pogba does, but even the worst of them shouldn't take five seconds to get off their arse while play goes on in the biggest game of the season.

Perhaps the United manager will look at the second half as a template but it takes a huge leap of imagination to believe that, because of a crazy 16-minute period, a Mourinho team will suddenly come out throwing punches in every big fight, especially with the glass jaw that is their central defence.

Eric Bailly is an excellent man marker but was dragged around by City's movement, meaning that when the nominal centre-forward Sterling was fluffing the first of his two glorious chances from 12 yards, the closest United centre-back was 15 yards away.

Smalling's attempts to defend the corner from which Kompany scored were an embarrassment but, like Pogba being dangerous going forward, the fact that Smalling is often so weak in defence can't be something Mourinho didn't already know.

It seems a little churlish to question a manager whose team have just won their sixth straight league game but Mourinho's focus is more likely to be on fixing what went wrong in the first half rather than building on the buzz and momentum of the swashbuckling second.

His teams will never be clowns but even after a comeback like Saturday's, don't ever expect them to become great entertainers.

Irish Independent

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