Jose Mourinho and the art of Pragmatism

Some Manchester United’s more cynical fans let out a sigh of dismay when Cristiano Ronaldo announced that he was no longer happy at Real Madrid, after accusations of tax fraud unsettled the superstar. Few enjoy the tedium of a summer transfer saga, it creates uncertainly, and United fans have been offered false hope too often in recent years. Some fans cling to the hope that the Ronaldo will once again grace Old Trafford; plenty felt an anxious twang of déjà vu this week.

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After all, David Moyes’ first transfer window was dominated by talk of Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford. In that same window United reportedly made moves to acquire Thiago Alcântara, Gareth Bale, Cesc Fàbregas and Toni Kroos. Yet, come transfer deadline day on 1 September 2013, United had made just one signing, Marouane Fellaini. Even then, the club botched the move by failing to activate the midfielder’s release clause a month earlier – it would have saved £4 million on the £27.5 million Ed Woodward shelled out.

In more recent times, United’s vice chairman has enjoyed reason to be smug with the capture of genuine top class talent such as Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Eric Bailly. Last summer’s acquisitions brought the lot: stardom, potential, flair, arrogance, but, most importantly, quality the team actually required.

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Bailly shored up a defence that was lacking in brawn. Ibrahimović brought goals and a sense of arrogance that had been sorely lacking under the toothless, stuttering guidance of Moyes and Louis van Gaal. United’s purchase of Pogba added world-class flair, and Mkhitaryan raised the quality of United’s attacking interchanges, many of which had become blunted and directionless after the soulless possession football that had come before. There were improvements across the team, as should be expected from the extraordinary amount of money offered up by Woodward’s office.

Last summer was an exception, not the norm. United’s aura under David Gill’s leadership, of a shrewd club that bought within its means to maintain a level of brilliance has diminished. Moyes’ single season was the catalyst – a 7th place Premier League finish highlighted that the squad needed an overhaul to keep up with the country’s top teams.

The reaction has been to throw money at anyone that might be emblematic of success. United has posted a record transfer fee for a teenager, Luke Shaw, and then broken the British transfer record with the purchase of Ángel Di Marίa. Radamel Falcao was also brought in on an extraordinary loan deal to add more fire power up front. Of that trio, only Shaw has remained for more than one year, and even the talented youngster has found it much more difficult than many expected to make himself a regular starter.

Of that same window, it is the less shiny acquisitions that now hold more sway in José Mourinho’s dressing room. Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Ander Herrera arrived to muted fanfares. The former pair can reasonably claim to have enjoyed a strong first season under Mourinho, while the Spaniard picked up the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year. In fact, the only Galactico-style player to arrive under Woodward and showcase his immense talent is Anthony Martial. It lasted just a year, with the Frenchman suffering an under-par second season at the club, leading to speculation about his future.

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It leaves the conclusion that the relative effectiveness of United’s 2016 summer transfer window was not of Woodward’s doing, but that of Mourinho. Players were not bought for the sake of excitement, but with a clear role in the squad. It gave the team a new dimension.

United’s sixth-place Premier League  finish was below the result Mourinho’s side should have achieved, but victory in the EFL Cup and Europa League have put the club back into an elite bracket. The truest success of Mourinho was not extracting the best out of the superstars at the club, but elevating the performances of those squad players who would have been deemed average a year ago. Herrera is the most prominent example, but Antonio Valencia, Jessie Lingard, Sergio Romero, Rojo, and even Matteo Darmian have exhibited their importance to the team. If the past three years have taught any lesson, it is that crowbarring supreme talent into the team for the sake of reflected glory does not lead to success. Winning teams must be crafted with a level of pragmatism that only the very best can muster.

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In recent weeks fans have taken to social media to vent frustration at the purportedly “mediocre” players Mourinho wishes to bring in this summer. The acquisition of young Swedish centre back, Victor Lindelöf, drew little excitement due to his lack of perceived status. Yet, the player’s calmness under pressure and ability to play the ball out from the back offers further quality to one of the tightest defences in last season’s Premier League.

Should United capture Alvaro Morata – a deal that appeared to be close until Ronaldo threw Real Madrid’s transfer policy into disarray – and the rumoured offer for Ivan Perišić, give an indication of the type of players that Mourinho wants to sign. Neither is the superstar that will alone catapult United to Champions League success, but each is of proven quality and would add diversity to United’s squad. Morata is a goal-scoring number nine, something Mourinho desperately needs after Ibrahimović’s injury and subsequent release. Perišić is a two footed winger who has put up decent goal and assist numbers for an Inter Milan, a side that has otherwise significantly underperformed.

Likewise, Nemanja Matić and Eric Dier have been identified as targets to plug the enforcer-shaped-hole in United’s squad. The reaction to these rumours have again been grumbles of discontent – that squad filler may mean that United will not be able to once again claim to be the best team in the country. Indeed, a quick temperature check says that Monaco’s Brazilian fullback-turned-holding-midfielder, Fabinho, is the fans’ choice.

Yet, it would surely be short-sighted to rule the signing of Matić or Dier a disappointment. The Serbian destroyer has been integral to Chelsea’s two Premier League titles in the last three years, while Dier has consistently started for a Tottenham Hotpsur side that has amassed more points than any other team over the past two years.

Either way, whether these rumours are real or not, there is a truth to the observation that United does not need more Galactico signings, but something more pragmatic. Mourinho has assessed that his squad is talented enough to do battle with best in England, as evidenced be the Portuguese’s tactical victory over the eventual champions, Chelsea, towards the end of the season. Tweaks are needed, but an overhaul is not.

Fans may clamour for Ronaldo, but the likelihood is that Madrid’s politics will eventually win out and the forward will stay in the Spanish capital. Mourinho’s targets are tailored for his team, and his previous success in the transfer window should offer more than enough credit. Woodward should be wary of chasing unavailable dreams. Ronaldo or not, Mourinho has a plan.

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Happy birthday Pretty boy : David Beckham

‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’

I am no fan of Shakespeare, I couldn’t care less about the contextual values of his time and totally dislike his Elizabethan English. But if their were to be something I totally agree with,  it’d have to be the above quote.

There is a popular story narrated by former United Kingdom Prime minister, Tony Blair in an interview. He said he happened to visit a small island in Japan and people couldn’t recognise him or United Kingdom. Children couldn’t even pronounce his name correctly. Out of desperation he uttered the name “David Beckham” and immediately stuck common chord with those kids. Probably, the story may be a bit exaggerated but there is no denying the fact what David Beckham had on football.

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Beckham has played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, while also acting as a sporting ambassador for his country, playing a key role in London winning the race to host the 2012 Olympic Games. He was born and raised in East London, but began his career at Manchester United at the age of 14, winning the Champions League in 1999, as well as the Premier League six times and the FA Cup twice. After winning the French title with PSG, Beckham has won 19 trophies – 10 of them league titles – in a playing career spanning 20 years, and is the only English player to win championships in four different countries.

Stylish, flamboyant and a free-kick master. A wonderful range of passing, a quick decision maker, creative, patient and composed. Such superlatives could be about any number of brilliant players throughout football’s history. Had Beckham been born Italian, he would undoubtedly have been played centrally.

Such is David Beckham’s godlike status these days – sporting ambassador, style guru, model father, stoic asthma-sufferer – it’s easy to forget how unpopular he was at the start of the decade. England supporters still hadn’t forgiven him for the petulance that earned him a red card against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup finals (and which led to his effigy being burned outside a London pub).

You are just 23 and the entire country says “ You cost us the World cup.” David Beckham famously said :

‘I have nightmares about France 98. It was humiliating. It will always be with me.’

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Probably, it was in his genes or the club he played for at that time when he decided to take the free kick against Greece.  The stage was Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home ground and the lead actor was David Beckham. From the boy who costed the world cup to the captain of the country taking a free kick to help England qualify for the world cup. Think of the pressure, the thoughts which would have gone in his head.

“ What would happen if I miss this? ”

Everyone knew who would take it. And everyone knew what he would try to do The Greeks should have known, too, but they put only four men in the wall, and Beckham swung the ball round them into the top corner. The draw was enough to take England to the finals in Japan, where Beckham exorcised the demons of four years earlier by scoring the only goal (a dubiously awarded penalty) in the defeat of Argentina. But David Beckham did what he did for Manchester United for years. He took the challenge and delivered one of the most iconic free kicks in the history of football.   

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But Beckham has something few footballers possess: beautiful looks, he’s an art-object in his own right. Forget the frantic hairstyles (skinhead, Mohican, ponytail, kiss-curl, spiky, slicked back, bleached, etc) and the wretched tattoos. Forget the sarong and the experiments with pink nail varnish. However silly the get-up, his good looks can’t be disguised: brown eyes, a winning smile and (as seen in underwear ads as well as the shirt-exchanges at the end of games) a terrific body. Sam Taylor-Wood recognised it when she made a film of him sleeping. Peter Blake, Alison Jackson and Antony Gormley have all produced art-works inspired by him. And Tracey Emin exhibited a letter she sent him, along with a photo of herself half-naked on a bed – the sort of come-on Posh must spend half her life fending off.

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Some thought the obsession with fashion and celebrity would be the ruin of Beckham, much as alcohol destroyed George Best. But Beckham had been into clothes from an early age. At the age of six, for a family wedding, he delighted in choosing his pageboy outfit – maroon knickerbockers, white stockings, frilly shirt, ballet shoes (“I’d have worn it to school if they’d let me”). He is famously fastidious, too, once refusing to give a fellow player a lift after training in case he scuffed the leather seats of the new Becksmobile. For a footballer to be a gay icon transgresses the laws of beery machismo, but Beckham has pulled it off.

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Some fans would prefer him to be tougher: had his dodgy metatarsal not made him shirk a Roberto Carlos tackle in Japan in 2002, allowing Brazil to sweep downfield and equalise, might England have gone on to win the match and the tournament? All three World Cups Beckham has played in have ended in disappointment and “what ifs?” But the miracle is that he’s survived to take part in a fourth. He may be the modern George Best for Manchester United minus the drinking habit. Every woman wanted him and every man wanted to be like him. I grew up watching Manchester United day in and day out and David Beckham was the reason why I wanted to sport a “spiked hair style”.

But Beckham was more than a player. He was — and will remain, even in retirement — a brand. The planet has enough replica Beckham jerseys — in England white, United red, Madrid blue and Galaxy gold — to clothe a small nation.

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The problem many people who love to hate Beckham encounter is that as an individual he is hard to dislike. He is not a bon viveur full of witty put-downs when he faces the press – that is Steven Gerrard’s job – but Beckham is polite, mild and, even now, sometimes stumbles over his words. They like the fact that he is rich, famous and lives in Beverly Hills but, like them, makes a regular pilgrimage to the stadium by the North Circular in the vain hope that one day the England team will get their act together.

Somehow, against all the odds, this hyper-celebrity with his improbably named children and Hollywood actors for friends has become a man of the people. He has done so because the older and less effective a footballer he has become, the more people have come to appreciate the way that he has hung on tenaciously to what is important to him – his place in the England team. And, of course, every now and then he can still hit the kind of cross or free-kick that tells people that, technically, he is still an excellent footballer.

There were some utterly absurd moments in his England career which, looking back upon, it is hard to believe he was allowed to get away with. His decision to have a traditional African “corn-row” plait hairstyle for England’s 2003 friendly in South Africa – when he met with Nelson Mandela – was one.

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We shouldn’t really be surprised that Becks is a man capable of sleight of hand when it comes to handling his public image. Just think what he’s pulled off in the two decades since he became globally famous. It’s stunning. In this commitment, Beckham, too, has form. This is the boy who, without the innate talent of a Messi or a Ronaldo, would spend three hours at practice after everyone had gone home, to ensure he could cross the ball with the best. His great heights were undoubtedly built on early foundations of grit, focus and dedication.

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The biggest lesson he taught to fellow footballers was rightly said by Zlatan Ibrahimovic :

“As a footballer it is important to be yourself and live your life – not to live in a bubble, not enjoying your life. That is what I admire about Beckham. The attention that follows him, is not easy to live out your life. But he does it. I even told him that I admired him because he brings his children to surfing, to the park. I felt sometimes I would stay at home, because I want to be left alone. But after I saw him, he brought me off the couch and he motivated me to take my family out and do these things. If he can do it, then me, someone with 10% of his attention, can do it.”

Happy birthday David Beckham. Thank you for making my childhood wonderful with those killer free kicks and the unforgettable Samurai advertisement. The supporters at Wembley cannot all be wrong. They feel a connection with him that transcends the usual suspicion of modern-day millionaire footballers. 

 

Jose Mourinho and his art of ‘Siege-Mentality’ at Manchester United

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It is no great secret that José Mourinho is fond of mind games. Throughout his two spells in charge of Chelsea, whenever things have been going against him – and even when things have been going well – Mourinho has proven himself to be a master manipulator; carefully choosing his words in every post-match interview or press conference in an attempt to influence referees, cast doubts over opposition managers or to shape the media agenda to suit his own narrative.

In participating in these psychological games, Mourinho has deployed a variety of different methods depending on the requirements of the situation. However, during his title-winning campaign at Chelsea a couple of years back, there was one tactic in the Mourinho toy box that he found himself turning to with increasing frequency; one idea that arguably underpins the mindset and culture that he seeks to establish at his club and in his media relations – the concept of siege mentality.

Siege mentality is ‘a shared feeling of victimization and defensiveness – a term derived from the actual experience of military defences of real sieges’, according to everyone’s favourite user-edited online encyclopedia. The principle is simple – it presents an outside force as a hostile threat in order to foster a collective feeling of being oppressed or attacked, which will hopefully lead to a sense of cohesion within a group. The ‘us versus them’ mentality this creates is useful in football as the perception of a hostile outside environment can engender a stronger sense of fellowship amongst players and a greater commitment to achieving a collective goal, if they feel they are under threat of persecution.

It is by no means an original concept, but it’s one that Mourinho wields masterfully. While the creation of a siege mentality has characterized the manager’s career, it seemed as though he was taking the notion and pushing it to its logical limits at times last season, stretching the idea like a rubber band until it’s at the point of snapping. On occasion, it appeared that there were enemies everywhere and attacks from every side.

Siege Mentality at Chelsea

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During his Chelsea tenure, Jamie Redknapp drew attention to a stamp by Costa on Emre Can in a Capital One Cup semi-final and Sky ran the footage with a caption calling the actions of the Chelsea striker ‘crimes’, Mourinho came out swinging: 

“I’m going to use the word that put me in trouble but I think this time I cannot be punished to say that there is a ‘campaign’ on the television, with a certain pundit that is saying ‘Diego Costa crimes’. This guy must be nuts.”

The ‘word that put [him] in trouble’ was, of course, ‘campaign’; Chelsea had drawn with Southampton shortly before and Mourinho has used his post-match interview on that occasion to suggest that the media were running a ‘campaign’ to undermine his side that had influenced the performance of the referee. After that suggestion, the FA played right into the Chelsea boss’s hands, issuing him a £25,000 fine and giving him yet another external enemy conspiring against him and his team.

Match officials, the broadcast media, individual pundits, and footballing authorities – there were campaigns at every turn, monsters lurking in every shadow. Undoubtedly it has contributed to his success and has been vital as a motivational tool for getting the most out of his players, especially those who thrive on confrontation such as Diego Costa, John Terry and Branislav Ivanović.

The Sporting Mind’s Andy Barton, a mental performance coach, told Press Association Sport said :

“Whether it’s consciously calculated, which is a strong possibility, or whether it’s an emotional response, which is also a strong possibility, Mourinho has, time and time again, shown a siege mentality with his teams, by creating common enemies.If you make yourself out to be a victim in a situation, if you’ve got loyalty in your team, which he does, it just creates a stronger bond. If you create a common enemy you have something to rally your team around and so they’re supporting a particular cause. You create a purpose in your team.”

Here the common enemy was  : Media,  19 teams and referees

But there were times when it seemed that Jose was one bad result away from locking himself in the Stamford Bridge changing rooms, sitting in the corner of the shower, gently rocking back and forth with a tinfoil hat on as his psychological game playing threatened to spiral into full-blown paranoia.

 Problem with the Mentality

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Chelsea’s collective failure last season is a curious case and though there are many theories behind it but no one knows what was the actual reason. Most pundits said it was the mentality of being in siege which curbed Chelsea’s progress.  In the short term, instilling this sort of mentality can be an effective way of negating the dangers of complacency and provide a way to keep motivation high. However, it’s not a sustainable or healthy mindset to adopt in the long term and can be detrimental – it’s mentally fatiguing to be constantly waging a war of attrition against faceless threats. Similarly, if everyone is out to get you, it is easy to shirk responsibility for bad performances and write things off as being out of your hands.

Clearly there is some merit in the argument that something vital changes after a few seasons of being managed by Mourinho. There is something about the way he operates that is unsustainable and is combustible, and the siege mentality that he utilises to motivate his players seems a likely cause of some of the problems that present themselves – after two seasons, it ceases to be an effective method of motivating players and combating complacency and instead the mental strain put on players to constantly be fighting against external influences causes relationships within the club to fray.

Mentality at Manchester United

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Mourinho had said his team would “probably lose” because their current fixture congestion would lead to fatigue. But even without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Wayne Rooney and Ander Herrera, they still managed to win 3-1 with goals from Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard and Antonio Valencia against Boros.

Winning Europa League or finishing in top 4 either ways Manchester United is desperate to get back into Champions league. The siege mentality might just be the only way United can regain their spot at the top of the Premier League and at the summit of Europe. One of his predecessors, Sir Alex Ferguson, once claimed in an address to a European Ryder Cup team that the key to getting the best out of elite sportsmen was making them feel ‘comfortable’. Mourinho’s career to date, his entire modus operandi, has been a refutation of that. The willingness to play on the back foot, the public dressing-downs, the intense personal relationships, healthy and unhealthy. He forces his players onto the same knife-edge that he lives on.

Juan Mata said in December that Mourinho’s siege mentality is rubbing off and its only matter of time when the results will be seen. Right now Juan Mata is injured but this is surely working for Manchester United. Juan Mata had said :

“Yeah, we need to help each other. We need to be stronger and look stronger as a team. I think we’re doing that. We have good personalities in the dressing room here. We have players with experience and so many young players with the dream to play for this club. We try to cheer ourselves up. When a player doesn’t play and has less football, the other players have to help him, especially with the mentality, as we all know the qualities we have.Mentally, you can be higher or lower and it can affect your game a lot, so what we try to do is always be in a balanced situation so we can express ourselves in the best way.”

It seems like success is judged not only on what you win, but how you win, especially when your team is a worldwide brand worth over $6 billion dollars like Manchester United. Yes, he’s a toxic character, but does that honestly diminish his success on the pitch? In the eyes of some, it appears that winning just isn’t enough. Mourinho would probably just laugh and point to his CV.

Bad Times Don’t last : But Jose’s tactics do

It was archetypal José Mourinho. On Sunday, the Portuguese manager found the perfect tactical riposte to the champions elect at Old Trafford. His Manchester United side emerged victorious after nullifying Chelsea in impressive fashion. Not that Mourinho’s team was on the defensive in victory against Antonio Conte’s side on Sunday. Far from it. The Portuguese manager reimagined his natural and historical inclination towards destructive football in his finest performance as United manager to date.

United’s dramatic victory potentially opens up the title race, with Tottenham Hotspur now just four points behind Chelsea. More importantly for United, victory leaves the Reds in touch with the top four as the season’s denouement approaches. If Mourinho’s team wins games held in hand over Manchester City and Liverpool the gap will be down to one and zero points. All to play for with just seven games to go.

United impressed by destroying Chelsea’s ability to play, highlighted by the visitors taking just three shots over the match and getting none on target. This is a Chelsea team that averages more than 14 shots per game over the Premier League season and has scored 65 goals.

But this wasn’t Mourinho’s anti-football at play, at least not as many understand it in the context of the manager’s career. On Sunday United enjoyed 47 per cent possession at Old Trafford, only dropping below 50 per cent in the second half when Mourinho sacrificed Jesse Lingard’s pace and endeavour for Michael Carrick’s greater defensive nous.

United also took more shots than Chelsea and played more passes in the attacking third. This was a vibrant, attacking United, even if the team was set up to destroy the visitors from the inside out.

Nor did United kick Chelsea off-the-park as Conte suggested was Mourinho’s strategy during the recent FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge. On this occasion it was the visitors who committed more fouls, even though Mourinho’s team attempted, and succeeded with, more tackles.

United won because, much as in that FA Cup tie, Mourinho targeted both Chelsea’s main attacking threat and principle defensive fulcrum. Once again Ander Herrera was charged with shepherding Eden Hazard, while Paul Pogba’s incessant ability to drive forward occupied N’Golo Kante, mentally and physically.

More than Herrera and Pogba, United can thank Mourinho’s decision to impose a high press for what might be only the second time this season, after the team played with similar intensity at Anfield. Chelsea simply couldn’t cope with it.

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Little wonder Mourinho found room to crow in the aftermath, celebrating not only United’s victory on Sunday, but the opportunity lost in the Cup, when Herrera’s controversial dismissal cost the Reds.

Jose Mourinho Said 

“We went to Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup with same tactics and the game was totally controlled when we played with 11 players,” 

Only the decision that made us play with 10 men for the second half, plus some minutes in the first half, gave Chelsea a chance to be dominant, but we knew that if we played this way then it would be very difficult for them. I think everyone did what they had to do.

I am really happy with the team and the results, because the Manchester City and Liverpool results left us in the position of needing to win. Not even a draw would be a good result for us, so I am really happy for the boys and for us because we keep two windows open to try to play Champions League football.”

 

Mourinho’s team selection also paid off in spectacular fashion. The Portuguese manager rested Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the first time in league football, seemingly suggesting from the off that he had decided to prioritise Thursday’s Europa League match with Anderlecht.

Far from it. As the match played out, with United punishing Chelsea on the break, it became clear that Mourinho has worked out that brilliant though Ibrahimovic is, the Swede has a certain inhibiting influence on United’s pace. Not so Rashford and his strike partner Jesse Lingard. “Maybe we didn’t rest,” noted the manager. “Maybe we just chose the team that we thought was the best team.”

With two in attack, Rashford and Lingard continually isolated David Luiz, with the Brazilian exposed once before the young England striker burst past the defender to score United’s opener.

The manager’s decision to switch to a back three was also vindicated, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young full of endeavour at wing-back, restricting the space normally enjoyed by Remi Moses and, on this occasion, César Azpilicueta. The system also offered Pogba the freedom of Old Trafford, with the £89 million midfielder, protected by Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, finally imposing himself on countryman Kante.

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It was also a day on which Herrera excelled in a destructive role. The Spaniard was sent off at Stamford Bridge for two innocuous fouls on Hazard, one probably not an infringement at all. Now came retribution, with Herrera shadowing Hazard to such good effect for more than 70 minutes that the Belgian took no shots, created just one chance, and completed just 78 per cent of his passes, with only 15 in attacking areas. One of the players of the season, reduced to a passenger.

Ander Herrera said : 

“It was almost perfect, Defensively it was perfect; they’re top of the table but didn’t have any chances. On the counter-attack we hurt them but we played football as well; we controlled the game. I think we can be very happy.”

Herrera, of course, was much more pivotal than solely being the hosts’ defensive shield, with the Spaniard playing the perfectly weighted pass from which Marcus Rashford score the opener. The former Athletic Bilbao player then smashed home the second in joyous fashion.

This, of course, was perfectly set-up for Mourinho to shine; the great reactive tactician, a master at building a bespoke plan for a one-off game. It is this ability that has won the 54-year-old so many trophies.

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The challenge now for the manager is to parse Sunday’s victory into seven more than will guarantee Champions League football next season. While the Reds have suffered most when facing middled-ranked teams at Old Trafford, the manner of United’s win over this season’s probable champions may provide a lesson learned. There are, after all, pivotal away games at City, Arsenal and Spurs yet to come. United will probably need to win them all.

Jose Mourinho said in the aftermath

“I cannot yet give up the Premier League, We have to try and if one day we are in the Europa League and in the Premier League the distance is too big, then we have to prioritize and nobody can criticise us if in the last matches of the league we do it in a different way. But while it is mathematically possible, we have to go with everything we have.”

In his first season at United Mourinho has already shown a willingness to adapt and evolve. Squad rotation might be his latest adjustment, but one made from compulsion and not choice. The silver lining among many ominous clouds is that Mourinho’s side still has control over the season’s outcome. If United does well in the games against others in the top six, the Reds should end up in the Champions League places despite sub-par home form.

Louis Van Gaal’s “decay” Transfer policy : Answers which Mourinho is searching

Bastian Schweinsteiger’s long-proposed move to Chicago Fire was finally completed last week. with the German heading Stateside ahead of the new MLS season. The World Cup winner left with a classy parting message to Manchester United fans and seemingly no bitterness, despite what has been a difficult and unproductive 18 months at Old Trafford. Schweinsteiger’s departure means that five of Louis van Gaal’s 10 signings as United manager have now left the club. Of those who remain perhaps only two can be considered successful, each with caveats attached. It is a truly rotten legacy.

Van Gaal’s time at United was characterised by a scattergun, often contradictory, agent-driven approach to improving and evolving United’s squad. Shiny new toys were bought, whether required or not, and too often acquisitions were based on the recommendation of agents, or a lofty reputation long-since diminished.

Van Gaal’s purchases included two fading stars, Schweinsteiger and Radamel Falcao; three talented youngsters, Memphis Depay, Luke Shaw, and Antony Martial; one bone fide world star at his peak in Angel di Maria; and six squad fillers. Of that group Depay, Di Maria, and Falcao have left, in various degrees of disgrace, while Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin were effectively frozen out by Van Gaal’s replacement before being sold, deemed not good enough for the club.

Of those who remain, Luke Shaw is on the periphery, Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind, and Sergio Romero are useful, but limited squad players, while only Marcos Rojo, Ander Herrera, and Anthony Martial are regular starters.  We look into the mess which Van Gaal left behind

Radamel Falcao | AS Monaco  | Fee £6.46m | Value for Money 1/10 |  AS Monaco/Chelsea
The Colombian came with a huge reputation, large wage packet and an even larger appendage. Of that trio, only the manhood survived contact with Old Trafford. After two unsuccessful years in England with United and Chelsea, Falcao is back among the leading goalscorers in Ligue 1. But the extent to which Falcao’s legendary sharpness and eye for goal had dismissed by the time he arrived in Manchester cannot be underestimated. The striker scored just four times in 29 appearances for the club, all too often seeming two yards off the pace despite desperately wanting to succeed. This was no last hurrah and cynical pay check; Falcao wanted to be a hit – he just wasn’t good enough, or fit enough. To nobody’s surprise, United failed to take up the second year of the striker’s loan agreement. To everybody’s surprise, Chelsea stepped in to repeat the mistake.

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Victor Valdés | Free Agent  | Free | 2/10 |  Middlesbrough
Goalkeeper and manager fell out almost as quickly as it took for the former Barcelona player to sign for United. Valdés’ career had been put on hold, with a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury not only ruling the player out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but scuppering a proposed move to Monaco. Van Gaal first offered his former Barcelona colleague time training with the club, and then a permanent contract. If Valdés was supposed to challenge David de Gea he did not. The ‘keeper certainly didn’t want to be sat on the bench, and it wasn’t long before the Spaniard was consigned to training with the reserve team. The agony of a loan spell in Belgian football followed, before a summer transfer to Middlesbrough where Valdés is rebuilding a once great career.

Ángel Di María | Real Madrid  | £63.75m | 4/10 |  Paris Saint Germain
It took Di Maria hardly any time at all to establish that he was the best player in Van Gaal’s squad. The Argentinian came with a huge reputation as a creative tour-de-force in the middle of Real Madrid’s central midfield. Those few early performances suggested that he could repeat it at Old Trafford. Yet, it didn’t take too much longer to realise that Di Maria was that tour-de-force only when he wanted to be. Granted, the player probably never wanted the move to United in the first place, nor did a break-in at his house aid with a difficult period of acclimatisation. Van Gaal’s bizarre use of a world-class talent in almost every position in the team didn’t help either. In the end there was little that United could do bar sell the player on at a significant loss.

Luke Shaw | Southampton  | £31.88m | 4/10
Shaw has all the natural talent to become one of the finest full-backs in football. Luck hasn’t always come his way, not least with that horrific leg break against PSV Einhoven in the Champions League 18 months ago, together with a raft of minor injury problems that never allow for a consistent run in the team. Yet, there is too much in the accusations of lack of fitness and lack of application to ignore. Shaw recovered from that double fracture, but he has not yet matured as an athlete or a professional. It is taking far too long for the penny to drop, and Mourinho is far from impressed. There were times this season when Mourinho has pointed the way, and yet Shaw is still unable to break back into the United side. A divorce this summer appears to be increasingly likely. It will be a very sad conclusion if that is the case.

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Bastian Schweinsteiger | Bayern Munich  | £7.65m | 5/10 |   Chicago Fire
See above. Schweinsteiger offered plenty of classy moments at United, but not enough to justify his place in the squad. The pointing was pretty good, as was his obvious leadership. The German international was, perhaps, the right player at the wrong time. If only he had joined United a few years earlier when the club’s midfield was truly short of world-class performers. Having suffered one too many injuries, Schweinsteiger arrived in Manchester a little too far off the pace during his début campaign for United. There can be little surprised that Mourinho, a coach who values physicality more than most, ditched the midfielder with little ceremony. Classy man, who was once a classy player. Good luck in MLS.

Morgan Schneiderlin | Southampton   | £29.75m  | 5/10
There were a few eyebrows raised when United spent the best part of £30 million on the former Southampton player. Schneiderlin’s industry is to be admired, but as more of an attacking talent than a defensive one, plenty had doubts that he could translate his Soton form onto a bigger stage. Van Gaal tried to deploy the Frenchman in a holding role; it didn’t suit the player or United. Schneiderlin’s time at the club was no disaster and United secured a decent fee from Everton this winter, but the original hunch that the player just wasn’t a significant enough improvement on what United already had proved to be correct. There’s a term for buying too many mediocre players for incremental gain: Liverpoolisation. United should steer clear of it, and Schneiderlin’s sale was surely the correct decision.

Matteo Darmian | Torino   | £15.30m | 6/10
Darmian’s first half-dozen performances for United proved to be a very false dawn. The Italian is a cool head, can operate across the back four and came at a reasonable price. But there’s little quality going forward and the defensive mistakes started to creep into his game during the second half of last season. He has proven a useful squad player, able to perform in either full-back position, but he is not as good as Antonio Valencia or Daley Blind, and has nowhere near the natural talent of Luke Shaw. The Italian remains at the club for now, but a sale to a mid-ranked Serie A side this summer is on the cards. Mediocre squad filler. See warning above.

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Marcos Rojo | Sporting   | £17.00m | 6/10
What an enigma. Rojo’s purchase was seemingly driven by agent Jorge Mendes and not any long-term scouting on United’s part. The former Sporting player enjoyed a strong World Cup 2014 with Argentina, but has produced a highly inconsistent two and a half seasons in Manchester. The player is clearly more comfortable in central defence than at left-back – and in fact this season can lay claim to being United’s most consistent performer in the centre. There are moments of genuine rash play though and he is lucky not to have seen red more often. At left-back Rojo is neither a great defender, nor a good attacker and it is still amusing when he is used in that role.  Rojo is probably not good enough to form part of a title-winning back four. For now the recent improvement is welcome.

Sergio Romero |  Sampdoria   | Free transfer | 7/10
Flappy Serge offers the odd heart-stopping moment, but for the most part the club has gained a good quality back-up ‘keeper and a very reasonable price. There were some who suggested the Argentinian World Cup finalist could challenge David de Gea for a place in the United side on a more regular basis. That, of course, was nonsense. Yet, Romero’s consistency, save for a few comedic errors last season, enabled Van Gaal and now Mourinho to rest De Gea in cup matches. Indeed, Romero has been near faultless in his 11 appearances to date this season. Rumours that the player would like a move in search of a more regular starting role may escalate in the summer. Should he move on, Mourinho will do well to find a reserve ‘keeper of equal quality.

Daley Blind | Ajax Amsterdam   | £14.88m | 7/10
The Dutchman’s composure and flexibility is an asset, although his pace and overall quality remain in question. Used mainly at left-back by Ajax, and in midfield by the national team, and in central defence by Van Gaal, Blind is the modern-day John O’Shea – a jack of all trades, master of none, squad player for the rotation era. That suited Van Gaal well, although Mourinho much prefers specialists in all positions. To that end Blind has been used primarily at left-back this season – it is comfortably his best position and there have been several stand out performances. It would not be a surprise if Mourinho moves the player on in the summer though. United bought Blind at a decent price and should find plenty of suitors across European football. No disaster, but no smash hit either.

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Ander Herrera | Athletic Bilbao   | £30.60m | 8/10

The Spaniard’s energy, tenacity and determination has been put to very good effect by Mourinho this season in a deeper role than any he has taken in his career to date. Used either at eight or 10 by Bilbao, and sometimes on the right side of midfield, Herrera joined United after a protracted transfer negotiation lasting more than a year. Van Gaal seemed unsure about the player, as did Mourinho for some of the early part of this season. Now Herrera is an essential foil for Paul Pogba. There is a question about his long-term role though. Herrera is not quite a pure-play defensive midfielder, nor does he offer the same quality as Pogba at eight. It seems that the Basque is best in a midfield three, and his position and future could be impacted by Mourinho’s summer transfer strategy.

Anthony Martial | AS Monaco   | £42.50m | 9/10

Martial has not enjoyed the same impact this season as he did last, although there are plenty of mitigating factors to take into account. The Frenchman has been limited to a wide role, when selected, and came off a turbulent summer in which he was supposed to help France win the European Championships – and didn’t. Then personal problems seemingly affected the player’s focus and confidence. Some of that old bravado is returning though, and Mourinho deserves credit for being patient with a player who has all the potential to become a world-class forward for United. The Portuguese manager is not always so with young players. United supporters will hope that Martial’s difficult second season will transform into a very high impact third. It should.

 

 

 

 

Mourinho’s Experimentation with 3-4-3

Antonio Conte’s decision to adopt the 3-4-3 formation at Chelsea has been influential in the narrative of the Premier League season. While Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have stumbled over different formations and team selections, Conte has persisted with the shape that brought him so much success with Juventus and the Italian national team. Chelsea’s balance of defensive solidity, work ethic in midfield, and mercurial attacking talents have pushed the Londoners to within touching distance of the title.

Indeed, Conte’s tactical revolution is taking the English league by storm, with various opponents attempting to mimic Chelsea’s success. Only Spurs have fully implemented the formation to a similarly devastating effect, while Crystal Palace, Watford and City have all experimented. Palace and Watford lack the quality to succeed, while Pep Guardiola’s side is probably short of the right players for the roles envisioned.

José Mourinho has also tinkered with the 3-4-3 in recent weeks, despite being accused of losing touch with modern football. The trial has offered mixed results. Mourinho deployed a back three in the first leg of United’s Europa League Round of 16 fixture with Rostov in Russia. The fixture was played on a surface that would not look out of place in the Sunday Leagues, and the Reds struggled to create any kind of tempo.

United also shifted to a back three against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup. It was billed as a litmus test for Mourinho’s newfound formation, and the contest looked even until Ander Herrera’s dismissal. Having lost a man against the league leaders, United parked the bus and played a back six for the remainder of the game.

The final outing of the system to date was in United’s Europa League home leg against Rostov. With a lower-quality opposition at Old Trafford, many observers expected Mourinho to roll out United’s full offensive capability. The visitors, however, were well organised and subdued much of United’s attacking threat until Juan Mata scored the only goal of the game 20 minutes from time.

United reverted to a more familiar system against Middlesbrough at the weekend, but the brief experiment with three at the back has offered some food for thought.

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Squad depth in defensive positions

Simplistically, a back three offers more defensive options than with a regulation back four. The extra centre back allows the full-backs take up higher positions on the pitch, although the wide players still perform defensive roles for the team. This plays to United’s advantage, with the Reds enjoying squad depth at centre back.

There have been times this season when the form of Eric Bailly, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling has offered the manager a selection headache, while Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah are youthful options on the periphery. Bailly has enjoyed a strong début campaign, while Jones and Rojo have, at times, fashioned a strong partnership. Although Smalling’s form has fluctuated, Daley Blind illustrated during the 2014 World Cup that, despite lacking pace, he is comfortable playing in a three-back.

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Mourinho also boasts good options at wing-back, with players possessing the necessary industry and pace to perform in the role.  This season Spurs’ Kyle Walker and Danny Rose and Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso have demonstrated the importance of wing-backs in the system. United could mirror the London clubs in that department, with Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw potentially two of the finest in the Premier League. With Blind’s quality of delivery and Ashley Young’s relative experience as an attacking full-back, United has some strength in depth.

Variety in forward positions

Conte prefers trickery and pace in wide forward positions, with Eden Hazard and one of Pedro or Willian, supporting lone striker Diego Costa. Over at Spurs Mauricio Pochettino prefers one of his wide forwards, normally Christian Eriksen, to have creative license while the other, Dele Alli, supports Harry Kane.

United could adopt either approach. With Zlatan Ibrahimović leading the line, Mourinho is able to draw on Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Juan Mata as wide playmakers in a 3-4-3 system, with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford providing a second-striker’s quality on the left. This system might allow Mourinho to switch fluidly between a dynamic front three and a more rigid two striker partnership, with a supporting midfielder. It opens up the possibility of Paul Pogba using his talents closer to the opposition’s goal

Manchester United v Southampton - Premier League - Old Trafford
Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring his side’s second goal of the game from the penalty spot alongside teammate Paul Pogba during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester.

Mourinho’s style

It is unfair to call the Portuguese manager a defensive coach, although Mourinho holds a natural preference for defensive solidity over attacking flair. There remains some truth in Mourinho’s assertion that he is upholding United’s attacking traditions. During United’s glory days in the late 90’s, Sir Alex Ferguson’s preferred style was based on defensive solidity and vertical passes, launching fast counter attacks, predominantly through the flying wingers.

The league leaders have adopted the 3-4-3 system for many of the same reasons, with the team able to defend deep and then look to hit the forward players quickly when possession is overturned. If the opposition is stretched, the three forwards can often mount a dangerous attack by themselves. If reinforcements are required, the overlapping full-backs can provide an overload in wide positions, particularly if the ball is switched quickly by one of Chelsea’s two central midfielders.

It’s a style of that applies to many of Mourinho’s best teams. The manager prefers taking fewer risks, while reaping the attacking rewards when executed correctly. The Portuguese focusses his coaching on the defensive aspects of football, while allowing his forward players freedom to use their own ingenuity and personality.

It was unsurprising that United’s only goal against Rostov at Old Trafford came when the Reds allowed the Russian side to retain possession. The home side seized the ball on the half way line and broke quickly against Rostov’s high line; a combination of quick passes between the front three ended when Ibrahimović teed up Mata with a smart back-heel for the Spaniard to tap home.

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Yet, for the majority of the game, United held possession in Rostov’s half and created few clear-cut chances. It offered an indication that the Reds may still be suffering a hangover from the Louis van Gaal era.

Pogba may struggle in 3-4-3

If the 3-4-3 system may superficially suit Mourinho’s personnel and style, it might not fit the team’s £89 million star player.  In the system two central midfielders shield three centre backs when the wing-backs have pushed up to create overloads. For example, at Spurs, Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembélé are used to great effect in the centre of the park, with both players capable of breaking up play and launching vertical passes. Chelsea deploy N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matić to perform a similar task, with Cesc Fabregas occasionally filling in for the Serbian against lesser teams.

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Pogba offers some defensive capabilities, but there is no doubt that the Frenchman is a far better player when given freedom to roam from box-to-box.  Against Chelsea, Pogba struggled to track runners from midfield as the game wore on and his positioning was far too deep to have any effect on United’s attacking play.

Ander Herrera has enjoyed a fine season, breaking up play and performing at a high level, yet the Spaniard cannot provide adequate defensive cover if the Frenchman is allowed to roam forward. It would leave Mourinho with three options if he wanted to persist with a three-man defence in the longer run, none of which are ideal. Firstly, Pogba can be given license to roam while United reign in the wing-backs. It might have the effect of making the side narrow and predictable. Pogba could be asked to perform a more defensive role alongside Herrera, but it would waste his myriad attacking talents. Finally, Pogba could be dropped for a more defensively astute midfielder – a solution palatable to nobody.

My Opinion : a dynamic system, but probably not for United

The system has proved a master stroke for Chelsea this season, and variations of the formation are quickly being adopted by some of the most exciting clubs across the continent, including Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona. The system offers flexibility in attack and defence, providing every player is an ideal fit for their given role. Mourinho has many of the players available to switch to the system permanently; the big sticking point is his star man. It is probably a defining factor the debate.

 

 

Ander Herrera: The jackal disguised as a choirboy

There are few greater crimes in football than Louis van Gaal’s decision to sideline Ander Herrera for much of his two-year reign. It had little to with the Spaniard’s ability. The midfield terrier has plenty of talent. Instead, Herrera’s exclusion appeared to be a clash of ideologies. Van Gaal’s possession obsession versus Herrera’s aggression; the Dutchman’s patience against a streak of recklessness. No longer. Herrera is important again, a man fit for José Mourinho’s regime. One fully understood by his manager, and the supporters.

While Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba are the poster boys of Mourinho’s United, Herrera is the player who personifies his manager most on the pitch. When the Portuguese coach first joined Chelsea in 2004, he was characterised as charmingly arrogant,  but a man who also commanded respect. The same kind of paradoxical traits that can be seen in United’s number 26.

While the Basque-born midfielder charms with a smile and offers small talk about the game for hours on end, his on-the-pitch antics polarise neutral supporters. Herrera’s penchant for a tackle, frequent protestations to the referee, and that face of innocence when pulled up for fouls, infuriates rivals. They are the same traits that endear the player to United supporters. Like Mourinho, Herrera has an infuriating quality: you either hate to love him, or love to hate him.

ESPN in their blog wrote :

It is easy to be fooled by Herrera when you first look at him. He is not particularly tall, and his fresh-faced demeanour suggests that of a polite and diligent postgraduate student, possibly studying economics. He looks like — well, like a nice boy. But he is assuredly not a nice boy. Nice boys do not conjure slide tackles with the viciousness of bear traps. Nice boys do not steal possession as if it were a wallet left too long on the adjacent dinner table. Herrera is an unlikely source of fury, a jackal disguised as a choirboy.

Mourinho’s success in raising Herrera’s game should not be underestimated. The hardest task in management is perhaps not getting the best out of star players, but raising the game of the less prominent among a manager’s the squad. While Antonio Valencia deserves plaudits for his improvement this season, it is Herrera who is now the most important cog in United’s machine.

Under Van Gaal, the Spaniard was used as a creative midfielder with plenty of license to get forward. Mourinho, in contrast, has harnessed Herrera’s industry, and perfected it. By deploying Herrera in a two-man central midfield alongside Pogba, or in a three with Carrick as regista, the Spaniard’s role has become that of the destroyer. His tireless running and willingness to harass the opposition gives Pogba the license to roam and Carrick the freedom to dictate.

Every successful team contains a player of this ilk. Leicester City’s fall after N’Golo Kanté’s departure in the summer, or Liverpool’s poor form since Jordan Henderson suffered an injury offer evidence of the point.

While strikers’ goals win games and goalkeepers’ saves rescue them, the Premier League is evolving into a battle for midfield control. The shift by both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspurs to a 3-4-3 system, highlights the the importance of controlling the central third of the pitch. It seems highly likely that Kanté will be named the PFA Player of the Year for his title-winning impact on Chelsea this season.

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Herrera’s importance was highlighted by his dismissal against the Blues at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. While any player loss will have a detrimental effect on the team’s performance, it was telling just how much United regressed without the Spaniard’s presence.

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The central duo of Pogba and Herrera had adequately matched Kanté and Nemanja Matić until the 34th minute when the United midfielder collected a somewhat dubious second yellow of the evening. Marouane Fellaini was brought on in place of Henrikh Mkhitaryan to add more steel to United’s midfield, but the game was already gone. The Belgian showed good strength, but Kanté’s dynamism could only have been matched by Herrera, and Chelsea dominated for the rest of the game, claiming 72.6 per cent possession by the end of the match.

Despite Herrera’s ability to break up play, the Spaniard also possesses quality on the ball, enabling a smooth transition from defence to attack. With Carrick unable to impose himself on matches as his legs age, Herrera has taken on the mantle of the deep-lying playmaker when he is partnered by Pogba. The former Athletic Bilbao player has the industry and game awareness to drop deep and restart attacks, while still being able to get further forward in support of United’s attack.

For now, though, what he is doing should be celebrated. He is arguably as cerebral a midfielder United have had in recent years, having played under Ernesto Valverde, Marcelo Bielsa and Louis van Gaal. He also takes to his play with the passion of a United fan — a quality which finds itself in the performances of his fellow Spaniard, Mata.

On the field Herrera is not the replacement for Roy Keane that United has missed since 2005, but his ability to command the centre of the pitch, bark orders at teammates, and incite fear with a crunching tackle or few offers a hint of the past. Herrera may still look like a charming school prefect, but his tenacity is a remnant of the Irishman’s heyday.

The player’s leadership also means that many supporters view the Spaniard as United’s next club captain. After all, Herrera has the mental strength, skill, charisma, and empathy to do it. He also has Mourinho’s approval. The player not only understands supporters’ passion, but embraces it. After each home draw he vents his genuine frustration eloquently and honestly. When the team wins, he does it with the fans. At a time when footballers are at a distance, the Spaniard thinks and plays like those on the terraces.

Indeed, if there is anything that Herrera can add to his game, then it is the odd extra goal here and there — he has shown that he can be a fine finisher when called upon, and with so much attacking talent he can benefit from the preoccupation of defenders by arriving late in the area. Yet this is all fine tuning of a machine in near-perfect working order. It has taken Herrera longer to get here than he might have hoped — far longer than he should have expected, perhaps — but he has finally become pivotal to United’s trophy challenges on all fronts, and looks to remain at the heart of their push for silverware for years to come.