José Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge this weekend, to seek revenge and break Manchester United’s curse at their bogey ground. It looked like a new United catastrophe performance when Antonio Rudiger headed the hosts into the lead.
The visitors were beheaded, but Anthony Martial scored twice in the second half to almost give United an unlikely victory. Ross Barkley had different plans, though, as he scored a dramatic equalizer deep into stoppage time to salvage a 2-2 draw.
Once dominant, nowadays clouded by time
It seems Mourinho finally got a little bit of space to breathe in fresh air. After weeks of the media torturing the Portuguese manager with stories about him losing his job at Old Trafford, a dramatic win against Newcastle and almost a win against Chelsea finally showed some positives.
But it also proved the significant limitations Jose Mourinho possesses as a manager. When he arrived in England he understood perfectly in which areas of the field he could make successful overloads. It was a time when almost every team played in a 4-4-2 system and Mourinho dropped one forward attacker for a defensive midfielder. This genius decision ensured conversion of his pragmatic and reactive football into an epic success which got him a load of silverware and the glory which goes with it.
Believe it or not, Mourinho’s ideas back then were avant-garde. But also, believe it or not, football has changed a lot since 2004.
“For me, it’s possible to play attacking football only when you have ball-possession” said Mourinho after the Newcastle game when questioned on why United only played attacking football when they found themselves in an inferior situation.
It is enough to look at Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea to see this thinking is outdated. Back in the day, Mourinho got his precondition for an attack in controlling the midfield with an overload but nowadays this precondition is created through the high press.
And here lies the answer to the question of why we saw a two-faced Manchester United in their last two games. Against Newcastle, Mourinho’s men started to attack only when they found themselves behind and this was repeated against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
The first face is classic Mourinho, where we see a congested and packed United who don’t want to cross the center of the pitch and attack. The second face is much more positive and in line with United’s style from Fergie’s era, when the Red Devils weren’t afraid to attack and always played for a goal.
In that state, United’s players looked much more confident on the ball, courageous in taking risks and most importantly, extremely effective. In his reign at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho is in a constant battle between these two faces. It’s like he must abandon his real self-image and ideas to accept the Manchester United paradigm of attacking and dominant football.
Against Sarri and Chelsea, Mourinho finally got his players right. He paired the fast-paced Martial and Rashford on the wings with the perfect link-up man in Romelu Lukaku. With Nemanja Matić controlling at the back and Paul Pogba doing most of the things on the field, United has the base to be successful.
But it still very much depends on Mourinho and his internal battles.
The xG king of Italy comes to town
United must quickly turn their attention to the Champions League. Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus are coming to town on Tuesday. The visitors from Turin sit top of Group H after winning their first two matches, while United dropped points in a goalless draw at home against Valencia last time out.
Ronaldo endured a difficult start at Juventus, yet the former Red Devil will be undoubtedly full of confidence upon his return to Old Trafford after netting twice in his last two Serie A appearances. Not only that, Ronaldo is currently sitting on top of the most efficient players in Serie A when looking at expected goals.
The Portuguese forward has recorded 8.40 xG in nine appearances for Juventus while netting five times and adding four assists to his tally. It’s obvious that he will pose the greatest threat to United’s defense and Mourinho will not choose means to stop him.
Although Juventus is a big favorite in this match, United won’t be without their chances. Their biggest could be the vistitors’ right-hand side where Leonardo Bonucci operates. The Old Lady have conceded six goals this campaign and Bonucci’s mistakes have played a big part in nearly all of them.
As per Twelve’s algorithm, the Italian veteran has been Juventus’ best performer in the Champions League this season. It’s mainly due to numerous long passes from the center of the pitch. Bonucci won’t be able to stay that high against United, but if he does, Mourinho won’t hesitate to exploit his positioning. Especially because he has Luke Shaw on that side who could cause big problems for the opposition defense when paired with Pogba and Martial.
To conclude, the clash of Manchester United and Juventus on Tuesday will be another big test for Jose Mourinho and a chance for him to prove to everyone that he is still worthy as an elite football manager and tactician.