Tuesday 23 October 2018

COMMENT - Jose Mourinho and Manchester United have not silenced their doubters yet

Jose Mourinho makes a point as Man United edge past Spurs
Jose Mourinho makes a point as Man United edge past Spurs

Mark Critchley

He put a finger to his pursed lips and locked his eyes on the nearest camera lens. It was a gesture aimed at the experts, Jose Mourinho said, after his Manchester United side scrimped three points from a tight and uninspiring contest with Tottenham Hotspur. One for those “Einsteins”, in the press box and beyond, who happily cast doubts about his methods after three less-than-perfect performances followed a near perfect start.

“Some people speak too much, you know? Calm down, relax,” he told them, but ironically, United's display and his hushing gesture that followed it did little to answer any of the pre-existing questions over his approach.

The match-winning goal, converted by Anthony Martial in the 81st minute, came out of an easily-preventable mistake by Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen, who stepped up too soon when misjudging Romelu Lukaku's flick-on and allowed Martial to scoot in behind. Minutes earlier, Dele Alli had miscued when presented with an excellent opportunity to open the scoring. Had either he or Vertonghen done what they often do in either of those situations, United would not have picked up a valuable win.

That's football, sometimes - a low-scoring sport of fine margins - but it is not Mourinho's football at its best. His United have treated us to several of these unmistakably 'Mourinho' performances in big games so far during his tenure and Saturday was the first time one that ended with a positive result, but it would be a stretch to call the victory convincing or say that his particular game plan worked.

The most remarkable aspect of Mourinho's previous teams was their ability to control the game even when they relinquish control of the ball. There is an authority about the best 'Mourinho ball' performances, a certainty that his side will not only avoid defeat, but they will ultimately overcome their opponents too - think Chelsea at Manchester City in a prematurely-billed 'title decider' in early 2014 or at Liverpool, in a genuine title decider, a few months later.

His current crop of players have produced one such performance - the excellent 2-0 victory over champions-elect Chelsea at the back end of last season. More often, though, they have shown how unreliable a strategy it can be. It failed at Anfield earlier this month and it may well fail again at Stanford Bridge this coming weekend.

First though, on Tuesday night, Benfica visit Old Trafford, still smarting from their narrow 1-0 defeat at the hands of United in Lisbon just less than a fortnight ago. It left them with no points after three games and seriously damaged their hopes of a berth in the last 16.

United can qualify for the knockout phase with a win if CSKA Moscow fail to beat Basel, while a draw will also do if CSKA lose. Mourinho's priority is to make it four wins from four in Group A, so his side are unlikely to play in the reserved manner seen for the majority on Saturday, but then the close-run nature of the game in Lisbon and his respect for the club that gave him his first job in management means he will not take their visit lightly. Indeed, he rates them as United's strongest opponent in the group.

“Our aim tomorrow is to qualify,” he said at Monday's pre-match press conference. “10 points would be ok to qualify but our main aim is to finish first in the group.

“The players feel inside the pitch when they play and they felt like it was quite easy to win against CSKA and Basel, but they felt it was quite difficult to beat Benfica. The game could easily have ended 0-0 or 1-1. Benfica is much better than those two teams, tactically and collectively. They are much better than that.”

The Portuguese champions, no less. After Tottenham, Benfica are the best side to come to Old Trafford so far this season too, but they are a wounded one. Their visit, therefore, is an opportunity to register that convincing win over a formidable opponent, to answer some of the questions Mourinho thought he had quietened and, unlike on Saturday, to leave nothing to chance.

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