Monday 22 October 2018

Brian Kerr: Jose Mourinho needs to make title statement ahead of Manchester derby

United boss has struggled against the 'top six' teams but failure to beat Arsenal ahead of Manchester derby would be fatal to Premier League hopes

Jose Mourinho with Arsene Wenger looking on. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Jose Mourinho with Arsene Wenger looking on. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Brian Kerr

Even in those precious, brief moments of triumph, it seems as if Jose Mourinho can't help himself contrasting his latest special success with the apparent failure of others.

It's like a boxer who, instead of wallowing in the afterglow of victory, immediately seeks to call out his next opponent, rather than indulging in the brilliant bloom of his achievement.

After his Manchester United side won the Europa League last May, and more importantly regained their status as a Champions League competitor, the Portuguese couldn't resist another dig at his rivals. "There are a lot of poets in football. But poets don't win many titles."

You didn't need a B+ in Leaving Cert English to work out that Arsene Wenger was his principal unnamed target.

Although, if you threw another of his multitude of adversaries, Pep Guardiola, into the mix, you wouldn't have been far wrong either as he had just completed a frustrating, trophy-less debut season in English football.

Mourinho, who insisted his players celebrate by displaying three fingers in the air - representing three trophies, the Community Shield (how are you!) and the League Cup being the other two - was at once giving the two fingers to the rest of the football world.

Asked to revive a massive club in slumber, he had delivered and that was the bottom line. In Mourinho's world, there are no points for artistic merit. The prosaic trumps the poetic every time.

Convictions

However, such personal convictions are being challenged by his closest neighbours who are making quite a beautiful noise this season.

Mourinho is still miffed that all the talk is of City and his London rivals, yet United have scored four or more goals on eight occasions in the league (at least twice as much as any rival).

But that is only one half of his battle. The focus now switches again and is firmly fixed upon his record against the top teams and, ahead of tonight's trip to the renewed fortress Emirates, it remains the case that he hasn't won an away game against the established 'top six' in two years.

Three times he has returned to his former home, Chelsea, and not only failed to win but also find the net. There have been goalless draws at Anfield in successive seasons - not to mention the one at the Etihaad.

At Arsenal, Mourinho's United have also failed to register a goal or a point from the past two visits. Quite simply, they must win ahead of the Manchester derby next week. They must win that, too; but first things first.

A revived Arsenal under Wenger will test that resolve; they have won their last three league games by an aggregate of 8-0 but that was only after their title pretensions were ruthlessly exposed by Man City.

Last season, it looked like only an unlikely Champions League title would save the Frenchman and, even after he helped them win the FA Cup, it was still hard to believe that he retained the club's support.

They are slightly better this season as, like United, certain key players have improved.

Granit Xhaka, who had a torrid temperament even before joining, has cooled his indiscipline; two dismissals and five yellows last term caused him to miss nine matches. Three yellows in 14 games this campaign is a more palatable statistic for a player in his position.

And he has also matched this improvement with a greater awareness of his responsibility as a holding player, although Burnley's Jeff Hendrick exposed a lingering weakness there last weekend.

Shkodran Mustafi, after being missed during Arsenal's indifferent start, is now fit and was outstanding in the recent win against Spurs; he is another player who has also kicked on.

The first-team are also benefiting from their unwanted absence from Champions League as Wenger plays a completely different team on Thursday nights.

Their often brutal injury problems have also eased. Santi Cazorla is their only significant absentee and the once-prone Aaron Ramsay already has 13 starts to his name this season; he managed only 12 last term.

Doubts about the commitment of want-away stars Alexis Sanchez and Mezut Ozil were quenched by their excellent performances against Spurs but surely this is only fleeting in the context of their future.

Ozil was rested last weekend but he was once more at his devastating best in midweek; against Spurs he was harrying and hustling.

Despite the illusion of improvement, their future remains uncertain and, though they may not leave in January, their departure seems inevitable.

It is folly to think they can be replaced by similar standard signings; the fact that both seem, once again, to have roused themselves to much greater efforts in recent games compounds the sense of impending loss.

Arsenal will not be a better team next season without them.

For now, at least, Wenger's line-up has had a settled look to it even if Olivier Giroud is likely to make his first league start for the hamstrung Alexandre Lacazette.

The unease and dis-satisfaction which often threatened to spill over at the Emirates last term, deriving mainly from some dire European setbacks, has been absent as they have confidently compiled an impressive home run.

Four away defeats in the league demonstrate the perennial vulnerabilities remain and even last week at Turf Moor they had to retreat Alex Iwobi back to a three-man midfield after half-time, reverting to two up front and only a late penalty ensured victory.

Unlike Mourinho, who seems to approach ever game with a specific tactic, Arsenal have often refused to tailor theirs, so superior do they feel about their own attacking game.

That has changed somewhat, initially when Wenger changed to a back three last season but we also saw a renewed purpose in the Spurs game and they harassed their rivals from the first moment.

Clarity of purpose and intent and the training ground work was obvious, from the pressing of the front three to the midfield screening of Ramsay and Xhaka combined with an aggressive, mobile defensive line.

Dangerous

In this manner, they were able to completely snuff out the threat of the dangerous Spurs' trio, Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane and Dele All; that the latter pair were substituted represented a stunning success for Arsenal's tactics.

It was almost surprising to see them effect such a detailed approach to nullifying another team; and, more, to do it so effectively.

Place this in contrast with their trip to Burnley when it didn't look like they had any great plan apart from their familiar reliance on a sense of attacking superiority; the grumpy Sanchez a symbol of this mis-placed hubris.

Arsenal will need something more than the swagger of hosts against United because Mourinho always has a plan. Unlike Wenger, he approaches every game in a different way.

They need to be aware of the next match because, as City's nearest viable challengers, a six-point swing this weekend would be fatal.

At least their Champions League duties this week are not onerous and they can fully concentrate on league matters.

Mourinho has had to fend off constant criticism of his style of play, to which he has responded by pointing out that he plays with two wingers in the full-back position and his side have scored 32 league goals.

It's a fair enough comment to some unfounded dis-satisfaction; the Ferguson era may have been ultimately defined by images of free-flowing football but there were some Saturdays when they had to grind things out too.

In this, his second season, both manager and squad seem to be more in tune with each other.

Nevertheless, his first instinct is always to stop the opposition if he sees them as a threat; last week, Brighton were not perceived to be one and, on days like this, he leaves the defending mainly to Nemanja Matic and his two - or three - centre-backs.

Chris Hughton's men proved a stickier proposition, however.

Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford were tame last Saturday and omitted during the week against Watford, when this time the approach was again a confident, attacking one but even then he had to rely on the man of the moment, Ashley Young, following up his fortunate goal against Brighton with a spectacular brace.

Romelu Lukaku is still effective despite the fact the goals have dried up somewhat; of course he can improve and the return of Zlatan will sharpen his focus but he is still contributing to general play. His build-up play was excellent against Watford, particularly when he dropped short and turned past Sebastian Prodl and played a neat ball to Lingard who set up Young's first goal.

Eight goals in 14 appearances is a reasonable return for the new signing but his goal-a-game start to the season raised expectations.

Apart from the discarded Daley Blind and Luke Shaw, all the players have responded to Mourinho's promptings and his signings have improved the squad.

Respectable

In any other season, a haul of 32 points from 14 games would be more than respectable but it is somehow made to seem rather moderate when placed against the stunning standards being set by City.

This evening, he is likely to retain a third centre-back although, with the less subtle Giroud in for Lacazette, he may feel he can cope with just two centre-backs.

In that case, he will slot in an extra protective midfielder in the Anders Herrera mould or even Marouane Fellaini, if fit, who will add to their set-piece attacking options as a bonus.

He will play his two wingers but, as at Liverpool, it will be primarily defensive; on that occasion, Young played ahead of Antonio Valencia to stem the influence of Mo Salah and Philippe Coutinho. This allowed Mourinho to play the extra defender - Matteo Darmian - while also instructing a midfielder, in this case Herrera, to sit back beside Matic.

In contrast to Wenger, whose instinct is attack, Mourinho's emphasis is different and the approach is rigid; defence first, attack later rather than the traditional United approach of attack first, trusting in your own ability regardless of the opposition.

In games like this, Mourinho likes to hustle teams into mistakes and then the quality players pounce; they rarely emerge from their formation and there will be little risk involved.

Both these managers will be confident in the renewed conviction that their respective approach has generally rewarded them with this season; although you sense that Arsenal always remain vulnerable to one of those alarming dips in form.

Their problem is that City's irrepressible form has cast a giant shadow over this pair.

And Mourinho, for one, is not a man who likes to remain in the shadows.

However, that unwanted record of 11 away league games against 'big six' opposition without a win - and just that one goal in the last ten - looms large.

A similar result will kill his side's title challenge so he may have to change his approach. History shows us that is unlikely.

Mourinho's team may have the footballing vocabulary required to beat Arsenal. But simple prose will not suffice.

With City likely to dispatch struggling West Ham tomorrow, Mourinho's team will have to conjure up some poetry or else you can close the book on this year's title race.

Irish Independent

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