Monday 20 August 2018

Mourinho's brilliance lies in moulding teams into winners rather than developing individuals to Ballon d'Or standard

Jose Mourinho’s relationship with Paul Pogba is coming under increasing scrutiny as the Frenchman struggles to justify his huge transfer fee. Photo: Getty Images
Jose Mourinho’s relationship with Paul Pogba is coming under increasing scrutiny as the Frenchman struggles to justify his huge transfer fee. Photo: Getty Images

Brian Kerr

I've been nudged in the ribs once too often for my liking so now is the time to dish out some of my own medicine, delivering a none-too-subtle jab of the elbow into the side of my tormentor.

"Jaysus, sorry Brian, I must have fallen asleep!"

The apology was accepted graciously. Obviously watching Manchester United in the Champions League can cause anyone to drift into the land of nod occasionally.

Except this wasn't in Sevilla last Wednesday or in Louis van Gaal's time but 20 years ago during the reign of Alex Ferguson.

There were mitigating circumstances. After a couple of flights and a long drive, Ireland's youths had played a 1-1 draw with France in Nice so we decided on another long drive to take in United's quarter-final with Monaco.

We were all tired and aching for bed; the action, or lack of it, on the pitch made us long for it even more.

Stifled

A team featuring David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Andrew Cole and Teddy Sheringham drew 0-0 and while we all grimaced and stifled yawns, Bobby Charlton grinned at full-time, fully expecting the semi-final reward to come after the Old Trafford return.

Monaco, though, would win there 1-0.

Amidst frequent bouts of collective amnesia lately, it is worth recalling that some of the glory, glory days were less than glorious indeed.

Ferguson endured some fairly ropey days in Europe.

Cluj, Zalaegerszegi, Maccabi Haifa, Gothenburg, Fenerbahce...the list of ordinary teams they have succumbed to in Europe matches the number of quality teams they have overcome.

Sepia-tinted reflections can often cloud the memory.

While it may be true that this famous club has witnessed more than its fair share of excitement from a stellar list of outstanding talents in the past, the fact that they delivered success is of much more relevance to their supporters.

If entertainment, flair and attacking football were all that mattered, Ron Atkinson would never have been sacked. And we all know how Alex Ferguson struggled in his first years in the job.

Success is the only tradition that matters at Old Trafford. Success is the United way.

That's why Jose Mourinho is, for now, the manager. He knows how to win - he had done it 23 times before arriving and in one season he has elevated that total to 25.

In his mind, he will believe that he can win another two trophies this season, too. How he manages to achieve it will be irrelevant to him; all that matters to him is that he manages to do so.

They may be the least convincing team remaining in the Champions League, and certainly the least convincing of the English sides, but they still have a chance of winning it.

He has done it before - twice - with less-celebrated Inter and Porto sides.

I haven't experienced any sense of negativity with the style of play at Old Trafford this season.

Under David Moyes, you felt a sense of frustration but it was almost like a well-disposed sympathy towards a manager struggling in the immediate slipstream of the great one.

The criticism was more vocal under Van Gaal with the constant chorus of "Attack! Attack! Attack! Attack! Attack!"

And now there is an overwhelming sense of jealously, despite everyone trying desperately to conceal it, at what is happening down the road.

But they retain faith. City will win the league but United, who will have enjoyed Wigan bursting City's quadruple bubble, have as much a chance of winning the Champions League as their rivals.

United's fans know that and they also know Mourinho is a winner.

His brilliance is manipulating teams into producing results rather than manipulating individuals into becoming winners of the Ballon d'Or.

In the Europa League, they stifled youthful Dutch stylists Ajax and won it handily.

Southampton may have gone ahead in the League Cup final but Mourinho's signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic would again come up trumps.

There is some level of expectation that United teams combine style with substance but, because of the lack of success in recent years, the fans will put up with their manager doing it his way, even if the critics are not happy.

As his former wingman Damien Duff confirmed this week, Jose will guarantee you trophies, but maybe not excitement.

United's recent displays are reflected through an unflattering prism compared to the type of risk-taking, attacking play that Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City are thriving upon.

That disparity has been clear during the recently completed first-legs in Europe.

Even Chelsea had a bit of a go against a Barcelona side who enjoyed twice as much possession as they did.

Emphasis

Mourinho's emphasis on the balance in the team is always there, between attacking and defensive qualities, in order to get results.

Defensively, they are effective. They have the best record in the Premier League, mainly thanks to the brilliance of David De Gea.

In contrast to City, who spent vast amounts to improve their defence, United have not needed to bolster their defence so much but have spent a fortune trying to improve the attack with the signings of Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.

The results have been underwhelming.

They were unusually risky in their approach against Spurs and they were eventually over-run in a midfield where Pogba and Nemanja Matic featured behind four attacking players - Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Lukaku and Sanchez.

It was a gambit more relevant to a game with Swansea because Mourinho usually approaches matches against real rivals with the aim of stifling opposition strengths.

It was almost as if he didn't have a plan and he instead sought to trust to his players. After that jarring experience, now he will trust himself more than his players.

And, unless he fails to win a trophy while everyone else around him does, he will continue to do so.

Pogba has been singled out, naturally given his profile and transfer fee.

Subbed versus Spurs and dropped for Huddersfield, against Newcastle it was as if he over-compensated for the lack of discipline of which he has been accused.

He played in a much more restrained position alongside Matic and didn't affect the game in attacking areas where he normally does.

On Wednesday, there was a little more vibrancy about the team when he came in early for Ander Herrera.

There were flashes of his skill and passing but then his team became over-run and were hanging on before half-time.

As the game developed, he was part of a more cautious midfield as required by his boss.

Most of the attention seems to be on him and we saw this from Mourinho's testy TV interviews.

Pogba remains an enigmatic figure. A Champions League finalist as far back as three years ago, his experience should be an asset but he is still, frustratingly, at almost 25, a work in progress.

Yet there has been far too much emphasis on how the manager has failed to extract the best performances from the player, rather than examining why the player has failed to get the best out of himself.

As Duffer says, he has world-class ability but he is not a world-class player. Yet.

There has been much talk of whether he is a six or an eight but he seems to be at sixes and sevens at the moment and that is his responsibility, not the manager's.

There has been a breakdown of trust since the Spurs game but can it be repaired against Chelsea tomorrow? And can United achieve the correct balance between sturdy defence and incisive attacking play?

There is a sense that everything is on a knife-edge as Mourinho addresses these questions ahead of crucial Champions League and FA Cup ties, as well as vital league games against Chelsea and Liverpool.

Conte is also walking a tightrope; despite their spiky history, each man will be more concerned about how their own team performs as opposed to throwing darts at the other man.

Chelsea won handily at the Bridge last season and also won an FA Cup tie in London but, when the sides met at Old Trafford, Mourinho was desperate to win even though he accepted that Chelsea were on the brink of a coronation.

That day, the main plank of his tactical approach was to assign Herrera the task of shadowing Eden Hazard and it worked to a tee, with the gifted Belgian play-maker unable to influence the match and he didn't fire a shot in anger all day.

Now Herrera is unavailable. So what will he do now? He is without Marouane Fellaini, who was also an effective bulwark that day.

He has been very complimentary about Scott McTominay but it remains to be seen whether he might risk him. He might have something up his sleeve like a Matteo Darmian or a Luke Shaw to perform that role.

It seems clear he was holding a couple of players in reserve and Anthony Martial, who has inched ahead of Marcus Rashford in the manager's thinking, may start on the right alongside Lukaku and Sanchez as his front three.

Playing at home in such a crucial match, it would be overly conservative not to start with at least one of the attacking quartet - Martial, Lingard, Juan Mata or Rashford.

Pogba and Matic will start and then it depends on who will fulfil the Herrera role.

One thing is for certain, he will not allow his midfield to be exposed as they were against Spurs.

Chelsea played without a centre-forward against Barcelona but opted for pace in forward areas and a compact midfield and Conte must decide whether to deploy Hazard as a 'false nine' yet again.

However, Alvaro Morata, a match-winner in the reverse fixture this season, should start even if his goals have dried up.

There will be some freshness after the exertions against Barcelona, a commendable effort when only a self-inflicted mistake allowed the Catalans to nick a draw.

It's a game neither can afford to lose and both know that they are in a precarious position with regard to Champions League progress, never mind the prospect of guaranteeing their place in the competition for next season.

It's not do or die but either side could inflict a stunning blow on the other. Respectful caution will be the watchword and it is unlikely to resemble the entertaining fare of matches involving City, Liverpool and Spurs.

Then again, most matches involving Mourinho are like that. The result trumps all.

And if Mourinho can achieve the win, the complaints about the style will be eroded and his squad, including Pogba, will have to acknowledge, for now, that his way is the only way.

Irish Independent

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