Three points secured, and Jose Mourinho could breathe a sigh of relief as his Manchester United team solidified their position in the Premier League top four with a crucial 2-1 victory over Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side at Old Trafford.
For Conte, this was a very disappointing result that has dented Chelsea’s chances of Champions League qualification. For Mourinho, this was a vitally important win. To him, that is all that matters.
Whether we like it or not, Mourinho’s United side have been created in his own image.
Swash-buckling? Far from it.
Pleasing on the eye? It depends on how you like your football.
This season, so far, a disconnection between what a population of the fans of United want, and what they see being orchestrated on the field, seems to have been created.
More often than not, they find themselves looking for nostalgic scenes of wonderful football genius, intricate passes and memorable moments that they can hold onto. Life after Sir Alex Ferguson was always going to be difficult for any managers that followed him.
David Moyes did not last very long; Louis van Gaal was not a popular choice.
Mourinho was brought in because, well, he is Mourinho: a serial winner, having won the Premier League title on three occasions with Chelsea.
For him, this was the perfect opportunity to showcase his managerial quality for one of the biggest clubs in football, to rebuild and become a super power both in England, as well as being consistently competitive on the European continent once again.
A return of two major trophies in his current tenure at Old Trafford may be a sign of progression. The question is, as the manager of Manchester United, does Mourinho owe it to anyone to adapt his style to that of a more Ferguson-like approach?
Over the years, the former United manager created a certain style of play that will be associated with the club forever. It is one that many believe should be the cornerstone of the way the team operates.
It is their identity, and the expectation for the hopeful was that Mourinho may try to follow in those footsteps somewhat.
However, he has resorted to instilling his own pragmatic approach on his team.
At times this season, especially in the bigger matches, it seems as if players have been programmed to stick to certain tactical instructions. “Free-spirited” footballers like Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have had to play within themselves for the good of the team.
Against certain opposition, it has worked. Nullifying the threat of the other team and pouncing on any weaknesses that United can find has seen them beat Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Chelsea; they have swept away Swansea City, West Ham United and Everton.
Key substitutions have seen Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard coming on with great effect to capture important victories at decisive moments in the season.
Scott McTominay has been unearthed as a tactical gem who, at a young age, will do whatever it takes to get first team minutes under his belt, even if it means listening to Mourinho’s wishes, word for word.
Against Manchester City, it did not work. Nor did it work against Spurs at Wembley. It did not seem to please many against Liverpool or Sevilla, teams that seemed to be there for the taking if United really went for it.
Those matches seemed to emphasize some people’s perceptions that Mourinho’s philosophy is “dire and dull.” The days of Old Trafford dominance, waves of United attacks, rampaging full backs and natural wide men are gone, they say.
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With City, Liverpool and Spurs showing signs of progressive football styles, there is an argument against Mourinho’s approach, sometimes described as “stale”, if not “outdated”, seemingly lacking the embodiment of the identity that seems to be associated with United.
There have been a number of occasions where Romelu Lukaku has looked an isolated figure up front, hustling and bustling against opposition defenders, yet lacking the support needed for a target man to flourish.
Paul Pogba has been made to look like a defensive liability, a man presumably not following the Mourinho blueprint and wanting to play football on the front foot.
His keen eye for the tactical side of the game is admirable, but seems to focus more on, “How can we stop the opposition”, rather than, “How can I get the best out of the players that I have?”
His predicament has not been made any easier by the progress made by Pep Guardiola at City, with comparisons made between the two managers a regular feature among football enthusiasts.
City are 13 points ahead of United, with a game in hand, and won their first piece of silverware under Guardiola in the Carabao Cup final against Arsenal.
With the league title in City’s hands, as well as being genuine contenders for the Champions League, there is a possibility that Mourinho could be left in the shadows of his managerial nemesis, and cut adrift with the likes of Arsene Wenger who seem incapable of “keeping up with the times.”
Commenting on United’s match against Sevilla in the Champions League, Spanish football expert, Sid Lowe, wrote:
It may not be fair to demand something more, beyond a team’s primary function, which is to win, and making this somehow an ethical question is a stretch, but there is something else, not just the score, not just success.
Unfortunately for Mourinho, people will demand more. Success and winning in his way may not be enough. Frustrations seem to stem from the fact that United could have the potential to be more attractive, free-flowing and exciting to watch.
If, however, he is able to deliver Premier league glory within the next few years, and have a team capable of challenging for the Champions League trophy, at the very least, then should Mourinho go against his own beliefs and exit his comfort zone?
What works for him may not be pleasing to the eye, but he has made it this far by staying true to who he is. Sticking to his style, as others seemingly pass him by in the modern game, will hopefully not do more harm than good.