José Mourinho has always been praised for his tactical awareness and his strategic planning. He has turned good teams into great ones, winning league titles in four different countries. However, in recent weeks, Mourinho has been heavily criticized for how he is managing players and managing big games at Manchester United. Mourinho has always had a defensive playing style, but has he been “parking the bus” too much against big teams this season? Without Pogba healthy, how are we ever going to win the league? These doubts from fans are not unwarranted, but maybe it is time to take a deeper look at United’s season and see how Mourinho is the same great strategist he has always been.
Three in the Back or Four?
Mourinho has been constantly switching back and forth between having three defenders in the back or four, and it has been brilliant. He has usually played four at the back when playing mediocre to lesser sides and three at the back when facing tougher teams. However, this change all came about when Paul Pogba got injured. With Pogba in the lineup, United most often ran a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. With his injury, United have played in a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 against tougher sides. Pogba is a box-to-box midfielder who can really do it all. He has an amazing work-rate on offense and defense that allow other players to play their best football elsewhere. However, with him out, United need to make up for his creativity and defensive contributions. The best way for Mourinho to do this is to run three at the back. In short, three at the back allow the fullbacks to get forward and create width, but also give them the responsibility to get back and play defense. This is not a long-term solution, but Mourinho needed a replacement. While others would look for another player to fill Pogba’s shoes, Mourinho looked to the group of players he had and decided that a change in formation would be best, and it has been.
Mourinho has also been great at managing his players this season, most notably Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Many players have been getting better at United under Mourinho, like Marouane Fellaini and Nemanja Matić, but most of these players have been getting better because of how they are being managed. Martial has been absolutely superb lately, but has still not secured a starting spot. Rashford has also been great, but a recent criticism of Mourinho has been that he has been starting Rashford over Martial. This lack of starting chances is Mourinho’s man management at its best. This competition for the left-wing has brought the most out of Martial and Rashford and has them both performing at a high level. It also allows a good amount of rest so both of them can unleash the blistering pace they both boast without petering out. This type of rotation has been applied to multiple positions at United and is what is keeping players playing at the high level they have been. While people get frustrated when he does not start who they think he should, Mourinho has the big picture in mind and plays how he knows he needs to.
Overall, United are off to a great start. Even though they have dropped points against sides like Huddersfield and even though he may play too defensively against top six sides, Mourinho has United in a good spot. Second in the league and first in their UCL group is exactly where we should be. The way Mourinho has United playing will keep the team fresh into the second half of the season and keep players performing at a high level. United might not be contending for the title unopposed or be the favorites to win the Champions League, but Mourinho has the team moving in the right direction and those titles are not far off.