Comment: Why it's time for Jose Mourinho to finally embrace the chaos at Manchester United
Back in the days when Jose Mourinho used to so imperiously rule everything at Stamford Bridge, and there was rarely ever the need for the kind of emotion seen on Saturday, he had that gloriously snobbish quote about a particularly eventful north London derby.
“Five-four is a hockey score, not a football score,” the Portuguese said. The implication was of course that the match was so out of control, so chaotic, that this was not football to be desired.
“In a three-against-three training match, if the score reaches 5-4, I send the players back to the dressing room as they are not defending properly.”
And yet the fact persists that Mourinho’s current team can’t defend properly. Manchester United have now conceded 16 goals in nine games this season, after the 2-2 draw with Chelsea. The late Ross Barkley equaliser aside, there were still more positives than negatives from the match for Mourinho, but most of those came after his team conceded. They came when chaos descended, and there are now compelling arguments that the Portuguese should start embracing this.
For the second match in a row, his side looked so much better when the game was veering towards a hockey score.
Chaos just seems to suit this United better. That is logical, mind, because open matches so obviously suit this front-loaded squad better.
It does not have the players to set up in the way Mourinho would idealise.
That does raise very fair questions as to why executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has not given the Portuguese the squad - and backline - he wants, but also more pertinent and immediate questions about why he doesn’t adapt to the players he has.
It seems to take extreme circumstances to force his hand, and force this team to go on the front foot.
This 2-2 draw with Chelsea summed it up.
Although United had so stirringly come back against Newcastle United by going for it, Mourinho didn’t go with that momentum for this game. His side initially started with the type of constrained containing approach they always do in big-six games, typified by their nominal playmaker - Juan Mata - being entirely charged with marking and stifling the opposition playmaker: Jorginho.
It worked, to a point, but only to the extent that United looked like they were playing for a point. The argument Mourinho would make is that the objective here is to keep it tight and then catch the opposition out, but that’s never going to work if you’re so worryingly loose on set-pieces. That is just another reason why this side is not built for shutting games down, for constraining them, for trying to keep control.
If you’re going to do that, properly organising set-pieces essential because of how predictably you’ll give them away, but United can’t seem to sort that. This match ended up bringing the third and fourth they’ve conceded in just nine games this season.
So, United inevitably went behind, and were then required to up the intensity. They were again immediately transformed.
Released from the rigours of concentrating on defence first, so many attacking players got to play their natural game. Pogba was allowed to create, and thereby purred. He is a player who so often seems so easily distracted - most notably for Antonio Rudiger’s opening goal here - but the flip side of such day dreaming is an imagination beyond most players, and that came to the fore when he got to curl in that delicious cross that eventually led to Anthony Martial’s equaliser.
Martial himself was suddenly free to exploit the open space around Chelsea’s box, rather than being charged with mostly suppressing it around the opposition full-backs. The French star flourished, so beautifully picking his spot for the second goal.
What was so encouraging about this spell was that second United goal felt so inevitable. An old-fashioned United surge had developed. Mata himself had been freed from the shackles he himself had tried to put on Jorginho, and was pressing Maurizio Sarri’s side and doing them damage. His adventure alone was causing chaos in a Chelsea backline just not comfortable with this.
And this is the wider point. United just have so many more players more comfortable with a proactive game, with taking the game on.
It is an argument that actually goes beyond the wider debates about Mourinho’s style, and adaptability to the modern game. It is one of outlook.
The Portuguese does deserve real praise here at the same time, because one thing has already changed. There was a long period earlier in the season when it looked like conceding the opening goal was the absolute worst for United because it would see them collapse.
It may now be the best for them, because it brings out the best in them. It forces them to get forward, to build and create, to play a game that suits them.
It’s why it might be time to embrace the chaos from the start, to allow games to open up early; to concentrate on attacking properly rather than defending properly.
When a score looks more like something from a hockey match than a football match, United just look better - and much more like actually scoring and winning.
Independent News Service