Thursday 18 January 2018

Miguel Delaney: The persuasive power of pure pace is evident

Jose Mourinho needs a quick fix at Manchester United - and pace is the key to doing that

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho

Miguel Delaney

Jose Mourinho, evidently, doesn't think there is going to be a quick fix at Manchester United.

After a trying first few months in the job, the Old Trafford boss now feels he finally has a full handle on his squad, but believes it is going to take at least another two transfer windows to get it into the shape he wants. That might provoke a lot of debate about the money the club have already spent and whether Mourinho should do some actual management and hands-on coaching with what he's got but, either way, the reality is that the squad does have gaps in it. It lacks a few elements, a few key binding qualities.

One of those will actually be on ­display at the same time as ­Manchester United host West Ham United this afternoon, albeit at Southampton, as they host Everton. It is an element that will appropriately speed everything up, right down to the perception of how Mourinho's plans are coming along, because it is the persuasive power of pure pace. Southampton's Shane Long has actually been clocked by Opta as the fastest player in the Premier League and, while that kind of running from the front remains a relevant issue for United, the Portuguese has been more interested in one of Long's international teammates on the other team: Seamus Coleman. Mourinho knows his side need more forceful bursts from defence, especially from right-back. While he has made Monaco's Fabinho a priority, Coleman has been looked at, as reported by the Sunday Independent in October.

The Irish captain's drives down the right offer the kind of intensity on the counter that have previously defined Mourinho teams. It is in some way ironic, and indicative, that his current side lack that at a time when pace has never been more important.

Speed is arguably the single most essential quality in the sport right now, the one attribute you have to have in abundance above anything else. While this is obviously not to say pace has not been key before, what is different is its dominance. Football history has gone in cycles in this way, when one attribute carries more weight than others. It usually evolves that way because of attempted responses to the reigning quality. So just over a decade ago, when Mourinho was at his peak with Chelsea, it was the imposing physicality of players like Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack that won most games. It was also how Greece won Euro 2004. Spain and Pep Guardiola's Barcelona eventually showed how to pass their way around that, making that style of technical possession the triumphant trait for the next few years. Its influence spread everywhere, right down to grassroots, creating this situation where so many modern centre-halves are now primarily produced as ball-players

One thing that even those Spanish sides were always susceptible to on the rare occasions they lost the ball, however, was raw pace on the break. It does seem possible we're entering a new phase now, when that pace has become the one most powerful weapon in the sport. You can see it right across the Premier League, from how the running of Victor Moses and Pedro have further electrified Antonio Conte's Chelsea, to the way Sadio Mane has made Jurgen Klopp's pressing at Liverpool properly penetrative. The factors that influence these evolutions aren't always as clean as can be made out in one article, and there are usually a few, but Klopp himself is relevant here - as is what happened in the Premier League last season.

The German's famed 'gegenpressing' at Borussia Dortmund was the first genuine tactical innovation after Guardiola's Barcelona, and its effectiveness at Liverpool has already seen it influence the approach of so many other sides - even Arsenal. It is a style that inherently requires near-relentless running and is obviously even more effective if that running is fast, further honing it. Added to that, there was the success of Leicester City last season, and how they achieved it. Their counter-attacking game was almost completely dependent on one of the fastest players in the league in Jamie Vardy, and took everyone a long time to figure out.

Leicester's struggles this season, however, are not the only indication teams have adjusted. Consider this: throughout the whole of 2015-16's 38 league games, Claudio Ranieri's classically counter-­attacking team scored six goals classified by Opta as counter-attacks.

In the space of just 12 games before yesterday, though, Guardiola's City have already scored three. So, the high priest of possession has embraced high speed as part of it too. The manager who so often squeezed the pitch for the opposition is now just as willing to stretch them.

Wenger has been much the same, though, as indicated by how Arsenal - and Chelsea - have attempted more counters than anyone else this season. It marks another type of break. One of the most frustrating aspects of Arsenal over the last few years has not just been that they don't win, and that they constantly succumb to the same old problems every season. It is that they haven't even played the same red-arrows football. They have often seemed so ponderous, but that has changed. By moving the rampaging Alexis Sanchez up front, and giving Alex Iwobi more time, they have been like lightning. Sure, they have dipped slightly in the last few games, but it doesn't feel like a coincidence that has come with Hector Bellerin and Santi Cazorla injured. The former is one of the fastest players in the league, the latter excels in releasing players like that. Today, they play a possession team in Bournemouth, although they will need to adjust better than they did last week.

United hemmed them in, but that was also because Mourinho made a ­significant change to his own team - and a conspicuous one. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended, the Portuguese opted to put Marcus Rashford up front over Wayne Rooney, and his pace there immediately gave the entire side more balance and direction. The difference was stark. They were just sleeker, more threatening, and that in turn emboldened the whole team.

Rashford might have been lax for Olivier Giroud's eventual equaliser, but there was still enough there to suggest he might well be becoming United's most important attacker. Merely putting him there changed the entire perception, and the play.

What Mourinho does today against West Ham will be telling. He could ­certainly do with his team's home form in the league improving, well . . . with a bit more speed.

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