A part of the [Real Madrid] squad began to think that [Mourinho] was not conveying certain footballing ideas because he actually did not really understand them. But he did not seem bothered by the simplicity of his work in attack. He saw his strength – the key to his success – in the simplicity of his model, and he thought that introducing ideas about positional play and static attacking would complicate training. This was not what had turned him into such a well-regarded coach.
Diego Torres; “The Special One”
It did not take long for the recriminations to begin following Manchester United’s dismal 3-2 loss to Brighton at the Amex Arena on Sunday afternoon. A sunny afternoon in the south of England soon turned into a familiar refrain as Manchester United struggled against midtable opponents. Not helped by the sight of Manchester City winning 6-1 earlier in the day, United fans were rightly dejected and unhappy. The players were downbeat with Paul Pogba stating his attitude “wasn’t right.” José Mourinho refused to blame individuals, stating that the media had castigated him previously for doing so.
The problems at Manchester United are nothing new and the failings – some due to application though others due to tactics – have been apparent since last season. The sight of Manchester United failing against Brighton so soon after their last encounter has dampened much of the preseason optimism. On the last occasion, José Mourinho implicitly blamed individual players – Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial – in the absence of Romelu Lukaku. On Sunday, all three played and the only common was a Manchester United defeat.
In an era of possession football, Manchester United dominated possession against Brighton. United completed 485 passes to Brighton’s 183 passes. United also had more shots (9 shots v 6 shots) though both sides had only 3 attempts on target. Six of Manchester United players (Fred, Victor Lindelöf, Pogba, Eric Bailly, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw) touched the ball more than any Brighton player. Andreas Pereira was substituted at half time and still completed more passes than all but one of Brighton’s players. The problem is clearly not a lack of possession, but rather what is being done when United have the ball.
José Mourinho did point to individual errors which led to goals without naming them. They were Victor Lindelöf losing Glenn Murray for the first goal, Eric Bailly giving away an unnecessary corner for the second goal and Bailly’s poor tackle leading to the penalty. Yet none of these errors explain why Manchester United were so impotent with the football throughout the game.
The most glaring tactical problem from the first half was the lack of involvement of Anthony Martial and Juan Mata in any relevant play. Martial and Mata appeared to be following tactical instructions as they took up similar positions on opposite sides of the pitch. Martial did have one excellent chance in which he cut in from outside and dribbled past a number of Brighton players before his shot was blocked, but this was the extent of his involvement.
Mata and Martial hugged the touchline in the first half and were expected more often than not to receive the ball in a standing position. This puts the defender at an advantage of being able to push up thus limiting the attacking player’s options. Having defenders shepherd Martial and Mata also meant that midfielders were less inclined to attempt and get the ball to them. Mata and Martial’s position on the touchline also limited the movement of the wingbacks – in this instance Shaw and Young – who were then forced to work inside their wing counterparts with equally reduced options.
Ken Early of the Second Captains podcast last week highlighted tactical changes in the Manchester City setup this season and how Benjamin Mendy’s return to the team has granted Pep Guardiola’s side more fluidity in attack. Mendy and Walker can work interchangeably with Sane and Sterling and either player is enabled to cut inside or work wide, causing difficulties for opposition defences who are unable to cover all potential areas of attack. It offers a level of unpredictability which Manchester United desperately lack.
Were Martial and Mata free to operate from a deeper and more central role, they would have opportunities to receive the ball on the run, dribble at defences and cause problems with their movement. It was this strategy which was utilised by Chelsea against Arsenal to great effect on Saturday evening with the running of Willian and Marcus Alonso.
Which brings us to the role of the midfield three. Pereira, Fred and Pogba started the game for Manchester United on Sunday afternoon The trio passed the ball among one another and aimed to guide play through the middle. Martial and Mata were often covered by Brighton’s full backs. Were Martial and Mata (or Rashford) to provide breaking runs from midfield into wide attacking areas, augmented by Shaw and Young behind them, the three midfielders’ chances of finding a receptive passing route would be greatly increased, with Brighton less able to press the player in possession. In addition to a lack of options, Pogba and Fred were both poor in the second half, sloppy in possession and hopeful rather than precise in their passing.
The lack of free-flowing football at Manchester United is an issue which predates José Mourinho and it was a fair assumption in 2016 that Mourinho was not going to return United to their 2008 levels of goalscoring. Having said that, any Mourinho team is expected to score enough goals to beat mid-level oppositions and this is where Manchester United failed on Sunday. The quote that started this article reflected the belief of Real Madrid players that José Mourinho was incapable of coaching attacking football. What Mourinho needs to do now is realise that the current system of attack at Manchester United is insufficient, and to have any hope at the business end of the Champions League needs a tremendous overhaul.