11 points behind after just 16 games, a look at how Jose Mourinho’s tactical obstinacy has cost Manchester United the chance of winning the title.
At 3:30 on Sunday afternoon, alongside millions of others, I refreshed my Twitter feed to find a refreshingly stirring arrangement of red shirts imposed on a familiar green rectangle. Four attackers and four defenders. It appeared we were about to see something different from Mourinho’s United side. Mourinho had admitted he was over ambitious playing Rashford and Martial simultaneously against a struggling Brighton team and yet there they were exchanging pre match handshakes in the highly anticipated, marquee match of the season so far.
Confusingly but at the same time predictably? Five minutes in it was the same story of the season so far. Martial found himself pinned in his own half as an auxiliary right back, attempting to break sporadically against incessant City possession. Mourinho’s stubborn defensive approach lasted for around 40 minutes before Silva finished scruffily from a failed Lukaku clearance.
Most frustratingly for United fans, Mourinho had learnt little from the Arsenal match which saw United employ almost identical tactics, escaping lucky to have not conceded more against a side nowhere near City’s technical quality. Praise for Mourinho’s tactics against Arsenal was unwarranted and his deployment of the same system was unfounded.
If not Arsenal, then surely games against Tottenham and Liverpool had shown Mourinho his rigid system wasn’t going to cut it against the very best England currently has to offer. Mourinho’s stubbornness manufactured his own downfall; his failure to recognise the gap between the sides United had already played and City was baffling.
Man City as a totally superior side, surely warranted a different approach. Ironically the only fight shown by United came in occasional five minute intervals and seemingly in the tunnel once the whistle had blown.
With the benefit of hindsight, the way United seemingly breezed past teams 4-0 at the start of the season must only be examined with an understanding of the timing of their late goals when the game was done and the opposition had been worn down by United’s pressing.
City’s ability to beat United’s high press with ease exposed United’s lack of versatility. In the brief periods where United did attempt to keep the ball in the way we all know they can, they were offered respite but more so attacking promise. It just didn’t feel natural though. These episodes were fleeting, Mourinho’s one dimensional system was exposed by a system that served as a celebration of free flowing football.
Remarkably this fluid football created two of the scrappiest goals that Manchester City are likely to score all season, stemming from individual defensive errors. While some will seek to argue that without these errors United would have walked away with three points, for me, it is totally inconceivable that United would have left Old Trafford with anything less than the footballing lesson that was handed to them.
United fans’ simultaneous emotions of expectation and disbelief, of the system they played versus the team they fielded, makes the result and performance even more frustrating and the post-match consensus implicated Pogba as the missing ingredient.
While accurate to argue that Pogba’s ability to link defence to attack is an essential aspect to the success of this years United team, this only serves to illustrate the inappropriacy of Mourinho’s instructions to the players on the pitch.
The lessons learnt from this match surely should have been learnt earlier. Mourinho’s reluctance to play more expansive football has surely been the downfall of United’s title hopes.