Ozil a 'can-opener' like Cantona for hungry Mourinho
It was the 25th anniversary yesterday of one of the most transformational signings in modern English football. Manchester United bought Eric Cantona from rivals Leeds United, who had beaten them to the First Division title the previous season, and the rest... well, you know the story.
Cantona was back in Manchester last week to promote a new book, and he used the moment to offer a sharp critique of United's football under the "defensive" approach of Jose Mourinho. In the Frenchman's eyes, it would have been far more "logical" for his former club to appoint Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, a champion of the free-flowing, attacking football with which Cantona became synonymous at Old Trafford.
In truth, neither Cantona nor anyone else could have accused Mourinho of a defensive set-up in Saturday's fortuitous 1-0 victory over Brighton but, even with Marcus Rashford positioned in behind Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata on the flanks and Paul Pogba in midfield, United's dearth of wit and invention was marked.
There was no-one to work a little magic between the lines, to pass, probe and provoke. There was, in effect, no Cantona.
Cantona arrived at United in 1992 and almost immediately unlocked the team's true potential. A few years later, his manager, Alex Ferguson, would describe his acquisition of the Frenchman as having "brought the can-opener" and a can-opener is precisely what Mourinho needs now as he wrestles with an ever more pressing conundrum at No 10.
Finding that sort of player is seldom easy, and usually very expensive, but there is a comparatively cheap solution for Mourinho. Mesut Ozil is out of contract at Arsenal at the end of the season and with the Germany playmaker reluctant to sign a new deal at the club Arsene Wenger has admitted he could be forced to cash in on the player in January.
A mercurial, oft misunderstood foreigner joining a direct rival in mid-season and boosting their title prospects? It has been known to work at Old Trafford and, frankly, it is hard to see where the gamble would be for Mourinho. It was Mourinho, after all, who signed Ozil for Real Madrid in 2010 and later described him as "the best No 10 in the world".
Ozil would probably cost no more than £20 million in January, and while there would be substantial wages to accommodate, United could make room until the summer before seeking to offload one of the underperforming playmakers whom Mourinho clearly has a hard time trusting.
Mata is out of contract in June, and while United plan to invoke an option to extend his existing deal by 12 months, it would be a move primarily aimed at bolstering his transfer value. Mourinho has largely refused to deploy him in his preferred central position.
The Spaniard, whom Mourinho sold to United from Chelsea in 2014, lasted just 20 minutes as a No 10 against Newcastle before being shifted to the right, and Mata did not get a second opportunity in the position against Brighton.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was accused by Mourinho on Friday of a gradual "disappearing" act this season, and the manager doubts his ability to influence big games on a consistent basis.
Mourinho's response when asked last week if he was getting enough from his creative players did not require much interpretation. "I think they give what they can," he said. In other words, the quality is lacking.
Ozil and Mourinho had their ups and downs at Real, but the United manager wrote the foreword for the player's recent autobiography. In their first two seasons at Real, Ozil played arguably his best football to date, and while his work-rate has often been criticised he allied craft with graft there.
With power and pace around him, Ozil could be a potent weapon. United have managed just 12 goals in their past 10 matches. It is easily forgotten but, in 37 league matches under Ferguson in 1992 before the arrival of Cantona, United failed to score in 11 of them. That all changed once the team were humming to Cantona's tune.
Twenty five years on, it is not unfeasible to think Ozil could be Mourinho's can-opener. (© Daily Telegraph, London)