Friday 19 April 2019

Stubborn Mourinho is playing the sort of game that is justified with the right results

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Getty Images
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

Having so conspicuously gestured that anyone with negative words about his team should keep quiet, Jose Mourinho decided to come out and say words about them that were only positive.

"I like a lot our performance, independent of the result," the Manchester United boss said of his side's 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford.

"If the result is 0-0 or 1-1 my feelings with the players and the team would be the same because they gave absolutely everything.

"Every ball was like the most important ball of their career, the concentration and focus was there and we cannot forget the quality of the team we were playing against."

That is true. United undeniably did a number on a Spurs team that has been so praised.

What is also true is that this was another Mourinho game against a top-six rival that can very easily be forgotten and, as ever, it meant there was as much to unpack from his post-match comments as there was from the match itself.

It is interesting that he was so enthusiastic about a match that was so stop-start and scrappy, that was so short on football, that had so few chances.

If this 1-0 was imperfect from a broadcaster's perspective, though, there are a lot of indications it was perfect from Mourinho's perspective. This may well have been an ideal display for him.

That is also something that is not being sniffed.

Unlike the Anfield match, the performance Mourinho derived from his side ensured it went exactly as he wanted it: tight and tense with few openings.

His team gave up a minimal amount of space and chances, they generally contained the opposition, they forced errors and, most crucially, they took advantage of those errors. Anthony Martial so satisfactorily punished a mistaken step-up in the Spurs defence to score the winning goal, in the way that his boss could only have purred at.

This really was a vintage Mourinho big-game display: percentage-playing and calculated, the positive flipside of what he did at Anfield.

It of course also made a difference that the players looked like they were offering much more intense application than at Anfield.

Those close to the United training ground say that he had been so concerned about the drop-off in the build-up to the defeat at Huddersfield, and then that consequent result, that "he put a rocket up the players" in the last few days. Training was said to be tough, but its effects told.

That tends to be what really elevates the displays of Mourinho teams, too. While the fundamental instructions have generally been rather functional, they were brought to far, far higher levels by the ferocious intensity he inspired his teams.

This was perhaps best exemplified by Internazionale 2010. They weren't all that sophisticated, but they were so searingly focused, brutally carrying out instructions to the maximum level possible.

There were indications of a similar intensity in United's display against Spurs, that "concentration and focus" Mourinho spoke of.

It could also be seen in moments like Antonio Valencia's willingness to get that extra tackle in on Ben Davies up the right flank, to buy that extra few yards.

It is still fair to ask whether United need more than this to win the league, though.

The flipside of playing percentages in such a way - as opposed to looking to impose your own proactive idea of football on a game - is performances like that at Anfield, or the knife-edge manner it can go another way.

Had Dele Alli scored his chance, or Martial's shot been saved by Hugo Lloris, it would be a very different discussion. It would have been "another dull United 0-0 in a big game".

As Mauricio Pochettino himself rather fairly said afterwards, it was one of those "very competitive" matches that was going to be decided by "some genius player that can change the game or some mistake".

"We made the mistake," the Argentinian said. "Bad luck for us, lucky for them."

And that is the thing about such football, when you make a game so tight. It is a little more reliant on fortune, on all those little details going with you.

If your approach is based around a game being low-scoring, you do run the inherent danger of a bounce going against you and deciding it.

The wonder also remains whether such minimalist football can really get the number of wins required to go and win the league, in a season when City are playing such moreish football and a ludicrous amount of clear-cut chances that just can't not produce an abundance of goals and thereby victories.

Ultimately, though, and for all he said, Mourinho is playing the type of football that is justified by results, that is much harder to criticise if he gets them.

He did on Saturday, and his side deserved it.

© Independent News Service

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