As social media continues to take over the internet, it provides an excellent outlet for supporters to vent frustrations or sing praises about their favourite team. However, this has resulted in recency biases completely overshadowing the big picture of a club’s progress. A manager’s job is now seemingly jeopardized every time their club drops points or performs poorly. Manchester United has received plenty of criticism this season – some of which is certainly warranted. But the Red Devils are yet to drop outside the Premier League’s top three teams, while still competing in the FA Cup and, until recently, the Champions League. There is no doubt that Jose Mourinho deserves more recognition for Manchester United’s development during his time at Old Trafford.
Jose Mourinho Deserves More Credit
Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure following the 2012-13 season left Manchester United in a very precarious position. They were champions of England, yet the overall quality of the roster was dropping and the average age rising. Old Trafford then proved too big a stage for David Moyes, who left the Red Devils in a dire state when sacked in April 2014.
Louis van Gaal’s tenure with Manchester United can only be described as an identity crisis. The Dutchman could never find his strongest starting XI over two years, featuring 33 different first-team players in both seasons he managed at Old Trafford. Comparatively, the only other time he ever featured over 30 players was the 1996-97 season with AFC Ajax. Additionally, van Gaal heavily favoured consistency over creativity. Ball retention is certainly important, but his teams were unable to turn possession into goals. Despite this, he allowed players with game-changing ability such as Angel Di Maria, Robin van Persie and Nani to leave the club, all the while playing Wayne Rooney as a deep-lying midfielder.
It is in his predecessors’ failures that Mourinho has found success. He came to Old Trafford with a precise game-plan in mind. It has been methodical, structured and at times tedious. But, it is undoubtedly working.
In their combined three years with Manchester United, Moyes and van Gaal brought 15 players to Old Trafford. Nine of those players are still with the club, yet most of them are squad rotation players at best. Moreover, just two players (Di Maria and Juan Mata) were legitimate stars who joined from elite clubs. The remainder either joined from a team of lesser quality or as a developing prospect. These types of players always risk floundering when they reach a bigger stage.
Jose Mourinho’s arrival completely changed Manchester United’s transfer policy. His targets have been meticulously scouted to fill a specific role in his vision. His first order of business was a reunion with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede has always had an Eric Cantona-esque swagger about him, which made him a perfect fit at Old Trafford. Mourinho’s priority that season would be to eliminate the defensive inconsistencies from the van Gaal era. He needed a striker who could create chances despite limited offensive instruction. Ibrahimovic’s return of 28 goals – and 10 assists – in all competitions certainly sufficed.
The Portuguese tactician has since continued attracting high profile players. Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alexis Sanchez were all stars for top-tier clubs when they made the switch to Manchester. Nemanja Matic, who became undervalued at Chelsea, is one of Mourinho’s favourite players. Romelu Lukaku may not have come from a top quality side, but with 85 Premier League goals prior to joining the Red Devils, he was ready for a new challenge. Victor Lindelöf and Eric Bailly have been the only legitimate risks in the transfer market. Though with Mourinho’s record of developing quality defenders, there is sure to be a return on his investment.
The players Mourinho has brought to Old Trafford are unquestionably the heart of his team. However, the work he has done with those remaining from previous regimes should not go unnoticed. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are not the top drawer centre-backs they were once touted to be. However, their decision making has improved exponentially under Mourinho. Improved positioning while eliminating rash, lunging challenges has resulted in both players – who have extensive injury histories – appearing consistently and becoming reliable Premier League defenders.
Yet, Jesse Lingard may be the player who has benefited most from the Portuguese. The Englishman initially struggled to show his youth team form at the senior level. However, Mourinho has shown faith in the 25-year-old, who’s playing the best football of his career. 13 goals – five of which are game winners – to go along with five assists have Lingard primed to be in England’s World Cup squad.
One of Jose Mourinho’s biggest challenges would be handling Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial’s individual talents without hindering their progress. Yet, the three have combined for 36 goals and 23 assists in all competitions this season. Mourinho has mixed a healthy competition into the camaraderie of Manchester United’s young stars. Form means playing time and none of the aforementioned are squandering their chances.
Building an Identity
The majority of Mourinho’s critics harp on the style of football he chooses to play. Compared to Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka or Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing, Jose Mourinho is certainly less friendly on the eye. He knows that he can’t compete with today’s offensive juggernauts, so he prioritizes the defensive side of the ball.
Mourinho builds his teams through the middle. A world-class keeper behind physical, tenacious players focused on disciplined defending and initiating counter-attacks. He aims to create a nightmare for the opposition to break down. In his first stint with Chelsea Mourinho had Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba. His most recent title run featured Thibaut Courtois, Gary Cahill, Matic, John Obi Mikel and Diego Costa. These vital roles are now filled by David De Gea, Bailly, Matic, Pogba and Lukaku.
This core group of players needs creativity surrounding it; Mourinho gets this from pacey, dynamic wingers such as Arjen Robben, Eden Hazard and Sanchez. The Portuguese teaches his teams how to avoid conceding. He then trusts his attackers’ natural ability to carry the load offensively. Therefore the blame cannot be placed solely on the manager when his team dominates play but is unable to convert.
A defend first then counter-attack ideology may be simple and hard to watch at times. Yet Mourinho has built an incredibly successful career in mastering it. To say that he is entirely negative would be a detriment to his work at Old Trafford. Manchester United are 12 goals and eight points better off than they were through 30 matches last year. They are also nine goals better and just one point worse than van Gaal’s entire final season in charge.
Manchester United will likely finish in the top three for the first time since the Ferguson era. Last season they won a European trophy. The youth are having a meaningful impact in the first team. Star players once again see Old Trafford as an attractive place to play. The occasional 0-0 or disappointing loss should not overshadow the strides forward Manchester United are taking, and Jose Mourinho is at the helm of it.
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