Mourinho still thrives an as underdog
This was José Mourinho at his best; the master tactician and motivator that we were supposed to have gotten in the first place. Stung by an unceremonious sacking at Chelsea, and clearly trying hard to put on a charm offensive for United fans, Mourinho has been an unusually subdued version of himself this season. While the lack of embarrassing antics was a welcome change, Mourinho without the old fire can seem diminished. But Sunday’s reunion with his old employers was a throwback to the Mourinho of old.
Mourinho is in his element when he feels like an underdog. The biggest, richest, and most successful club is the country with hundreds of millions of pounds worth of talent out of the pitch is no one’s idea of an underdog, but Sunday’s match-up against the league leaders provided a perfect opportunity to create a siege mentality.
Mourinho himself was stung by the humiliating league defeat earlier in the season, and undoubtedly irritated by the newfound application of the Chelsea players who he felt had quit on him just a year earlier. Paul Pogba played like a man increasingly annoyed by the comparisons to N’Golo Kanté. Ander Herrera, determined to put right what he felt like was an unfair sending off in the FA Cup for a foul on Eden Hazard, marked the Belgian out of the game completely. All over the pitch, it was clear that Mourinho had not just prepared his team tactically, but had them motivated enough to make a statement on the field.
This may not be the last we see of the 3-5-2
Mourinho first experimented with the current formation du jour in the Europa League, in what would prove to be a test run for the FA Cup match away to Chelsea. That experiment was ultimately stillborn, as - despite early encouraging results - Ander Herrera’s red card essentially decided the outcome. After the international break, Mourinho reverted to a back four, before once again matching up with Chelsea’s formation on Sunday.
This time, the new formation worked a treat. United’s players not only won virtually every individual battle, but they looked far more comfortable in their roles. Paul Pogba’s influence on the game increased in a slightly more advanced role, and the menace of the twin attacking threats of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford was the undoing of the formidable Chelsea backline.
With matches away at Manchester City, Arsenal, and Tottenham (all of whom have operated with a back 3 to varying extents this season) still to come, this new shape could well be Mourinho’s default set-up for the biggest games left in the league.
Rashford is too good to be a mere understudy
Marcus Rashford wasn’t the only player to have his best performance of the season on Sunday, but (alongside Ander Herrera) he was certainly the standout. He was absolutely unplayable. His pace, movement, and - in one particular moment in the second half where he shrugged off David Luiz like a backpack - his strength was simply too much for Chelsea to contain. Pre-match, Mourinho described the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimović from the starting XI as a rest for United’s top scorer, but post-match the Portuguese hinted that it was a tactical decision.
Whatever the reason, Rashford’s dynamic display was a reminder that as vital as Ibrahimović’s goals have been, the Swede’s lack of mobility can have a stifling effect on the team’s attack. After an inconsistent season, if Rashford has now finally rounded back into top form, it would be a shame to see him relegated to understudy or shunted out onto the wing by default.