When we looked at United’s fixtures a while ago, we were feeling Not Great about United bouncing straight from Juventus (a) to Manchester City (a). But since then United have managed to find a shape, a bit of form, and a win in Turin, which was most enjoyable. So how are things looking ahead of the derby? Here are the thoughts of our editorial team ...
AT: I should probably start by saying that I did not expect United to be going into the derby with a win. I’d vaguely hoped for some kind of spawny draw, but had resigned myself to a loss. Probably a convincing one, in style if not necessarily scoreline. Juventus are a little wasteful sometimes ...
... and on that point, at least, I was right. Well done me.
We should note that this win could easily have been a loss if not for David de Gea being great and Juan Cuadrado being silly. And then we should ignore that and celebrate the following facts. One, United won. Two, United actually played pretty well at times. And three, since we all woke up to JOSE WILL BE SACKED AFTER NEWCASTLE GAME WHATEVER HAPPENS, United have won four out of six, come within a few seconds of doing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and now this.
So, onto the derby. We can assume this win will have done wonders for the mood around the club. Do you think we learned anything about how United will approach City?
JS: For me, one of the most troublesome aspects of Mourinho’s tenure has been his failure to impose a clear and consistent playing style. It has become very fashionable to describe Mourinho as outdated or outmoded, but his problem is not that his tactics are archaic — a nonsense claim — but it’s that they’ve never been properly implemented.
Instead, he’s half-heartedly gestured towards an uncharacteristic style of possession football, leaving the team completely confused as to how they’re supposed to be playing. Quite why United haven’t become a ruthless counter-attacking unit is anyone’s guess. They seem to have all the raw materials. It’s most likely a combination of factors, not all of which are under Mourinho’s control.
But the heartening aspect of the recent run, and particularly the Juventus result, is that United have started to more closely resemble a classic Mourinho side. Sure, they rode their luck in Turin, but they worked tirelessly throughout the match to stay level, and were rewarded for what was, in the end, dogged determination. Had they had more precision in the final pass, they’d also have carved straight through Juve several times on the break in the first half. It’s possible that now their backs are really up against the wall, the classic Mourinho grit is starting to show through.
With that in mind, I’d be surprised if we didn’t see a similar set-up against City. I expect we’ll see little of the ball and try to sucker-punch them on the break. Let’s hope for another big performance from Anthony Martial, who is finally showing himself to be what we always thought he was: the absolute archetype of a Mourinho forward.
AT: At this point I’m going to rudely jump in and note: Mourinho’s United were actually a ruthless counter-attacking unit for the first ten games of last season, before everything went weird. Strange how the flow of time colours perceptions, isn’t it? If those ten games had come at the end of the season, and United had finished second with a bit of swagger, the mood at the beginning of this season would have been far more optimistic.
Sorry, BM. Over to you.
BM: Football is a funny old game. A month ago, José Mourinho was going to be rightfully, mercifully sacked. Now, he’s a win in the derby away from arguably his most impressive run of results as United manager. A month ago, it seemed obvious that the players had downed tools and weren’t playing for the manager, who himself was making decisions so bizarre that the only explanation was that he was trying to put a rush on his severance package.
So what happened? Did the players up tools? Was the dressing room — once lost — found again? Or is this a form of meta-rebellion, where the players hate Mourinho so much they’re keeping him in the job just to spite him?
Luck has played its part, not just in the late goals the team have scored, but in saving Mourinho from himself. If all United’s attackers hadn’t been in such dreadful goalscoring form, there’s no way that Mourinho would’ve given Anthony Martial a run in the team. And as everyone but Mourinho already knew, Martial eventually played himself into form, and is now showing why he should be the first attacking name on the teamsheet.
Luke Shaw started the season strongly, but if Antonio Valencia hadn’t been “injured,” do any of us doubt that Mourinho wouldn’t have been tempted to replace Shaw with Ashley Young in some of the bigger recent games? Instead, Young has been required on the opposite flank, and we now have a settled first choice back 4. Whether that back four is good enough is another question (to which the answer is: haha no), but at least they’re getting a consistent run of games together.
Whether owing to luck or design, the belief is there in the team now; they look like they not only trust in each other on the pitch, but they also trust in Mourinho’s tactical approach.
On Sunday, I think we’ll see a team that will be comfortable absorbing pressure, but also one that isn’t afraid to get at City, target their weak points, and counter attack at pace. I also think if United manage to at least contain City for the first hour or so of the game, that they won’t settle for a point and will push forward in attack more and more in the later stages. Almost like a real José Mourinho team.
AT: By way of conclusion, we should note that it’s possible that United will go to City, play really well, and lose. This is a team that broke all manner of records last season, and has started this in similar mood. They are City, yes, with all the weird shoulder-chips and inflatable bananas and Cityness that goes along with it. They are also, annoyingly, very good at football.
But! Even if United aren’t quite ready to deliver the glory glory that you, we, and Yanmar Tractors signed up for, it’s hard to deny that (a) playing well is better than not, and (b) playing well seems much more likely than it did a few weeks ago. Hooray! Hooray? Hooray!