The sight of Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba deep in heated discussion on the Wembley touchline, as Manchester United suffered a dismal defeat to Spurs, provided one of the images of the season so far. It said so much about the problems the Frenchman is currently experiencing, and similarly the issues Mourinho is having getting the best out of his most expensive player.
Indeed, the relationship between the two men seems to have fractured over the past few weeks, with recent reports claiming Pogba has asked Mourinho to use him in a more advanced position. That would be a more natural role for the 24-year-old, who has previously excelled on the left side of a midfield three, or in a driving, attacking midfield position, but never in a deep-lying role as part of a midfield duo.
But Pogba isn’t the only misunderstood player at Old Trafford. In fact, Mourinho seems to have a loose grasp on the identity of his Manchester United team as a whole. The Portuguese just doesn’t know what sort of side he has on his hands, demonstrated by United’s substandard performances over the past few weeks.
To comprehend Mourinho’s misunderstanding of his own team we must look at the Portuguese’s grounding as a coach. Mourinho is a football conservative. His philosophy is founded on the concept of minimising as many mistakes as possible. Minimise those mistakes and your team is more likely to win. That is his thinking.
This naturally lends itself to a defensive style of play. It’s in this style that Mourinho has more than once stood atop the European game, also winning league titles with every club he’s managed since Porto. But this Manchester United team presents Mourinho with something of a conundrum. He is a managerial misfit.
United is a side which lends itself to dynamic, fast and furious football, such is the balance of their current squad. Only Liverpool and Manchester City can match the Old Trafford outfit in an attacking sense, with their frontline of Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial and Alexis Sanchez, complimented by Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford, almost impossible to stop when they are in full flow.
The problem is Mourinho very rarely ever lets them reach full flow. Lukaku looks increasingly suffocated by his managers tactics, leaving the Belgian isolated as a frontman. The former Everton has come in for criticism this season, failing to build on his lightning start for his new club, but he hasn’t exactly been helped by Mourinho.
Martial is another who is being held back. The Frenchman has once again become a key figure for Man Utd after a difficult 2016/17 season, but he has done so with stabilisers on. What we have seen this season hasn’t quite been a full fat, full fizz Martial. Mourinho has been reluctant to unleash the full force of the Frenchman, recently using him in an unfamiliar right-sided role.
Then there’s Sanchez, who perhaps provides the clearest depiction of Mourinho’s failure to grasp the natural character of his team. Signed only a month ago, the Chilean already looks uneasy with the defensive responsibilities Mourinho has burdened him with. Sanchez might show the willingness to track back and chip in at the back, but that’s now where Man Utd should want him. That’s not why they made him the highest paid player in Premier League history.
Man Utd have the players to match Liverpool and City as the most enthralling, watchable teams in the division, but Mourinho, in his stubbornness, still refuses to take his foot off the brake. It’s not just that United are better in attack, it’s that they are extremely questionable at the back. Mourinho doesn’t have the squad to play conservatively.
Look at the performance of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling against Newcastle United on Sunday. The centre back pairing were haphazard and lackadaisical in everything they did, with Smalling at fault for the game’s only goal and fortunate not to give away a penalty. By refusing to change his approach, Mourinho is placing his faith in players like Jones and Smalling over Pogba and Sanchez. Does the Portuguese simply not see the error of his ways or is he too stubborn to change them? With Mourinho, it’s never clear.
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