There was a tweet during the game by journalist Miguel Delaney suggesting that Manchester United’s squad was so top loaded that it was more suited to playing on the front foot. It might seem anathema to the José Mourinho stereotype, but in Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, United took the game to Chelsea and dominated in the second half. Mourinho was giving Manchester United supporters what they had yearned for since his arrival. It was a game of competent, attacking football featuring a rampant Paul Pogba, a central Juan Mata and a goalscoring Anthony Martial; three things that should have been top of Mourinho’s priorities in the summer.
It's almost like United's squad is top-loaded and better suited to playing on the front foot.— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) October 20, 2018
The strangest thing about Mourinho’s gift to the supporters was that he gave them almost everything they wanted, while in a classic Mourinho structure. People will laud Saturday’s performance as a return to United’s roots; an attack, attack, attack style Manchester United. But it wasn’t. Yes, United attacked in the second half until they went a goal up, but to give credit to the manager, this performance had his fingerprints all over it.
While the team on Saturday might have appeared offensive on paper, United were devoted and diligent in their defensive work. It wasn’t a new approach for Mourinho, and the team were set up similarly in the 3-2 loss to Brighton in August. That game had been categorised by individual errors in defence. Against Chelsea however, United performed outstandingly as a team unit. Anthony Martial ran up and down his touchline all afternoon while Marcus Rashford rarely left his own six-yard box while on defensive duties. The performances of Rashford and Martial were exponentially better than those of Mata and Martial in August and United reaped the rewards.
Maurizio Sarri applied pressure on United pre-game, stating that United had the strongest squad in the league, and this rang true during the game. Mourinho fielded an attacking group of players; that rare sight of Romelu Lukaku, Martial and Rashford was welcome among supporters, with Juan Mata deployed centrally in what has often been the Ander Herrera role against Chelsea, shielding passing lanes and limiting the productivity of Jorginho.
It’s a favoured trope to ponder the scenario were Mourinho and Guardiola to swap clubs in Manchester. Zabaleta would still be a guaranteed starter in Mourinho’s City while De Bruyne would be playing the role of winger. Had Guardiola taken over at Manchester United, it’s likely that he would have tried to utilise Juan Mata in a central midfield role, similar to that of David Silva presently. Mata lacks the legs and expertise of Silva but is a fantastic footballer and proved this once again at Stamford Bridge. Mata was vital to the breakaway for Martial’s second goal and provided his best performance in a Manchester United shirt since his two-goal salvo against Liverpool at Anfield in 2015.
Not only was Anthony Martial’s work rate excellent, but his two goals demonstrated the type of cunning, guile and quality that United have often lacked in the final third. Romelu Lukaku has often failed to provide that same calibre of finishing. The Belgian’s performance was probably the only negative of the game for United. Approaching the Old Trafford game against Chelsea in February, Lukaku had been on the receiving end of criticism as a ‘flat track bully’ who couldn’t do it against the bigger teams. On that occasion, Lukaku put in a good performance and scored an important goal. On Saturday however, Lukaku contributed little to the game and in a manner unlike him, appeared disinterested and unwilling to put in a shift.
There is unrest among the United fans about Lukaku’s continued inclusion. José Mourinho has dropped practically everyone during his two-year tenure except for Lukaku. With Alexis Sánchez performing well in the comeback against Newcastle – as Lukaku was moved out to the wing – fans have seen a potential glimpse into the future and when we talk about Mourinho almost giving fans what they want, it is the inclusion of Sánchez over Lukaku which would be that final frontier.
United supporters were undoubtedly getting carried away two weeks ago following a last gasp win over Newcastle, the league’s worst team. Saturday was a much better case for optimism. United may not have beaten Chelsea, but Chelsea have been among the pace setters this season and to run them close demonstrates that United’s top four aspirations are still alive. To return to Delaney’s tweet; should United make investments in the team in January – which are necessary – United should not only challenge the top spots but also the very elite teams in Europe.
The biggest criticism of Mourinho to date has been that while fans feared negative, defensive football, they always felt he would bring a competent, cohesive unit and this hasn’t been the case. United have drawn and lost games they should’ve won and the defence has never looked solid. The uncertainty around the United central defenders is a concern in every single game. There is no regularity. There is no set structure. Victor Lindelöf’s selection on Saturday – after he had been kept on the bench against Newcastle while Mourinho favoured Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matić to play centre back ahead of him – raised eyebrows again.
The Manchester United performance against Chelsea on Saturday confirmed to the world that José Mourinho has not lost the Manchester United dressing room. The players worked for him. They put in a committed, diligent performance against one of the league’s best teams and considering the circumstances of United’s league performances to date, this cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, and in defence of Mourinho, his tactics have not changed drastically since the Brighton or Wolves games, but the commitment of the players has.
What Mourinho needs to ensure now is that the level of performance against Chelsea – which was pitifully lacking in other games – needs to be established as the norm. United played well against Burnley in early September, before plummeting again. The Chelsea performance needs to be the standard. United are suited to playing on the front foot and proved it at Stamford Bridge of all places in one of the most entertaining games of the season.