Thursday 19 September 2019

Jose must go against all his instincts

Jose Mourinho has a tactical dilemma on his hands. Photo: Reuters
Jose Mourinho has a tactical dilemma on his hands. Photo: Reuters

Jonathan Wilson

When people said they wanted José Mourinho to make Manchester United more like Alex Ferguson's treble winners, this, presumably, isn't quite what they meant. The capacity to fight back, to score late goals and to win games that have seemed lost is undoubtedly a useful one, but it does raise major questions about how Mourinho should approach today's Manchester derby.

Wednesday's victory at Juventus was the third time in the last six games that United have found a winner in the final five minutes, but it was also the fifth time in those six matches that they had conceded the opening goal of the game. It is as though they need the release of going behind to commit to attack - and this unbalanced squad is far more set up to attack than to defend. At Chelsea, and to a lesser extent against Everton, United suffered when, having secured a lead, they then tried to defend it.

That Mourinho finds himself in this situation in his third season at a club is, frankly, preposterous. How, after more than 100 games of Joséfication, can he have a squad still so little in his image, one that does not relish the harness but demands to be set free to run wild and enjoy itself? Football's soul has become bedraggled recently, pounded on all sides by bags of gold, but it retains a keenly ironic streak.

Yet it may be that his squad's anarchic nature does Mourinho a favour today. All his instincts will be to kill the game against City, to defend and provoke and block and spoil. This was the path on which he embarked after being overlooked for the Barcelona job in 2008: to be the anti-Barça. If they played with the ball, he would play without it. If they pressed high, he would employ a low block. If they set themselves up as the bearers of light, he, the fallen Lucifer, formed by the kingdom but rejected from it, would embrace the darkness.

But that might not be the best way to approach this game, not just because of United's characteristics but because of City. The 2010 Champions League semi-final second leg is an obvious exception - although Inter did lose that game while winning the tie - but Mourinho's best results against Guardiola sides have tended to come when he has been forced to attack.

In the second leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-final in 2011-12, for instance, Mourinho's Real Madrid found themselves 4-1 down to Guardiola's Barcelona. With the game essentially gone, they lost their inhibitions, scored twice and found themselves in the final minutes, implausibly, chasing an away-goals victory. In that second half, the popular theory goes, Madrid lost their fear of Barça. They went on to win the league.

Closer to home, there was April's derby at the Etihad, when United overturned a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2. City have conceded only four times in the league this season, but the goals against column is no longer a way of measuring how good a team are defensively. Last season City conceded only 27 goals in the league but they looked shaky whenever they came up against a side with the technical ability and nerve to play through their press - notably Liverpool and United.

Anybody can keep clean sheets if the opposition cannot get the ball: the real test of a defence comes when they actually have to defend.

It may be that City are getting better at doing that. At Liverpool last month, Guardiola set his side up in what was in effect a 4-4-2 formation, with David Silva as a second striker, and the two wide men, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling, charged with protecting the full-backs.

Would he bother with a similar policy against United? This is where selections become a game of chicken. If United sit deep, they would no doubt be delighted if City are conservative (although that 4-4-2 can be adjusted to the more familiar 4-3-3 easily enough).

But what if United, already nine points behind their neighbours, go for broke? What if Mourinho eschews his dogmatic reactivity to become truly pragmatic and does not what ideology dictates but what is most likely to bring a win and attacks, even if that also risks heavy defeat?

A sense there is nothing left to lose has perhaps stimulated Mourinho as much as his players. His hand-to-the-ear gesture in Turin may have been ludicrously immature for a man of 55, but it was classic Mourinho, as was his joke afterwards about getting the FA to translate Italian insults directed at him. A spark of fun and mischief seems to have been reignited in him and that perhaps might give him the courage to do as his own side, his opponent, circumstance and precedent would seem to suggest he should do, and attack.

What if he tells his players to go out and play as if they are already 2-0 down? What do City do then? How readily can they slip into that more cautious style they adopted at Anfield? City will likely have the majority of the possession but this game may not have the attack v defence nature of a typical Guardiola- Mourinho encounter.


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