Monday 20 November 2017

Stephen Hunt: Costa the one face Mourinho might not want to see again

Players with a point to prove to former manager could make difference in his Chelsea homecoming

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

As Jose Mourinho comes out of the tunnel at Stamford Bridge today, I can imagine he'll be respectful but business-like, maybe giving a little gesture to his old crowd but not much more than that . . . and underneath it all being utterly driven to get a result. His former players will be just as highly motivated, though, and the game will be telling in that it will immediately indicate which Chelsea starters had the biggest problem with Mourinho before he was sacked.

That's the way it is with football. For all the pre-match pleasantries about 'treating it like another game', it can really, really hype you up if there's history there and a point to prove. You're playing in a passionate sport and, being blunt about it, hatred is what you feel as you take to the field in meetings like that.

I played a fair few big games but the way I was fired up for those matches was probably equalled by the time I played a pre-season friendly against Notts County, because they were managed by my old Brentford boss Martin Allen. He didn't like me as a player, and I didn't like him as a manager, so I played that match like it was the World Cup final. I felt the hatred.

To be fair, Mourinho will probably feel a lot of love first - and not just from the crowd. He'll be meeting his old staff, old friends among them . . . although by the sounds of it there weren't many by the end.

It might be the first time he's seen some of them since leaving, though. Football is abrupt in that way. It's just straight out the door, and you don't often get the chance to say goodbye. Players also move on pretty quickly, because all they're worried about is who is coming in - but that doesn't mean the feelings go away.

You'll figure out in the first 15 minutes who had the most issues with Mourinho. There'll be that extra bite to their play, especially if they weren't picked by him. There's also a subconscious thing going on. If some particular ex-manager thinks a player can't do a specific task, or doesn't work hard enough off the ball, you will often see the player really put it in for that task - just to show the manager he can do it. Other players will go the complete opposite way, and maybe seek to hurt the former manager by doing exactly what he told them not to. Only the players know, though, and that will be one of the little details to try and look out for today - who's got that extra edge.

For his own part, Mourinho will be determined to get one over on Chelsea, especially after how it finished. He'll have that point to prove, and have his players revved - something he couldn't do in the last days at Chelsea.

I was disappointed with how it finished there and, because of his record at the club, he almost deserved to leave in better circumstances. But that's the game. It was time to go. There's also the fact that he's gone to a bigger club on the world stage, although I haven't been that impressed with his United. Has there been much change from Louis van Gaal? Not really.

The shape is a bit better, and the squad have a better understanding of it. You also won't see the players taking it on themselves to see if they can break the shape as much. Under Mourinho, you do or you don't, and the players are in better positions.

I haven't been impressed with them in terms of what they do in attack, and it's a pity because Zlatan Ibrahimovic has brought good things. He hasn't scored in a few games but strikers go through phases like this. He gets in the right positions, and a lot of play goes through him.

I probably would have expected more from Paul Pogba but I think he will end up as a great signing. At the moment, he's finding his feet, adjusting to the pace of the Premier League. He's come from Italy where the game isn't as highly energised, and where he was always the most physically impressive runner. Even the Italian national teams I played against, you would always be confident that you would be fitter than them and able to outrun them, but they were very good at controlling their bursts. British and Irish football tends to demand 100 per cent effort 100 per cent of the time and I think Pogba can do it. What is happening now is that he's finding his feet in terms of when to make his runs, the timing.

Mourinho is also using him in different ways, depending on the game. Against teams mid-table or lower down, he'll be more flamboyant but, in games like today, he'll be in a more defensive shape - maybe a two and one. I don't actually think Pogba is disciplined enough to play as a holding midfielder, but he will be a fine box-to-box midfielder.

There is one big-name Premier League midfielder whose talent is being wasted, though, but he's on the other team: N'Golo Kante.

I would go as far as saying it's the biggest waste of a player in the Premier League. It was so obvious watching Kante last season that he just has to be let go, to chase and hound players all over the pitch. I don't know how many times I saw him winning the ball coming from behind. He knows his energy, so let him use it. As it is, he's being restricted to the centre of the pitch. It's like having a greyhound desperate to chase after a hare, but fenced in after 25 metres, and unable to go further.

Kante can of course play that role but the point is he'd be so much better in a different position. He's in the wrong role in that way, although it could actually suit him to chase Pogba around, and we'll see how Antonio Conte's new three-at-the-back formation changes things. So far, it seems to make it a box in midfield behind Eden Hazard and the other attacking midfielder, where there isn't much space.

It's almost like they've had two number 10s, but the tactical challenge for them is to start narrow and break into the little pockets of space out wide. The United full-backs should have plenty of the ball, because there's not much out wide from a Chelsea perspective, and one key to this game could be whether Conte can get those 10s into the game.

If not, they could be non-existent, and it could be a bit of a nothing game like the Liverpool one on Monday. That was a horrible match, but United will get relief from it, and get more comfortable playing that way in big games. With a few more tweaks in terms of personnel, too, they can start to win games. The major problem right now is that they have no one with pace to carry the ball up the pitch from so deep. It makes them seem even more conservative, less cutting. I think United need two more wide players in that way to complete the team.

As it is, and with everything else surrounding this occasion, Mourinho is likely to again get United to dig in and make this a niggly game.

Diego Costa, though, could be the player to light up this game and get it going. He is on scoring form now, and I think he's the kind of player who will always go through hot and cold phases because he's so willing to work unselfishly, but there's also the passion and energy he radiates. That is why Conte had that row on Saturday, and wanted to keep him on. It is true that everyone follows Costa. He plays to win every game and, even if it goes right to the edge of sportsmanship, I would rather have that than a player who doesn't fancy it. He gets involved in confrontation, and that brings Chelsea players up a level. It gives that extra energy.

He could be one face Mourinho really regrets seeing again - unless his team can be driven enough to shut this homecoming down.

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