After a tough week for Manchester United, supporters should take solace in their 1-0 victory against fellow title hopefuls Tottenham Hotspur. The game played out as expected. A cagey affair with minimal opportunities for either side, resulting in negative press towards Mourinho’s tactics in big games. Granted if one is looking for entertainment, it may not be a match to revisit. However, there were key tactical choices within the game plan deployed by Jose that will undoubtably reappear. With an away trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Mourinho may be expecting improvements from his players in their quest to gain the desired result.
Manchester United set up in a 3-4-1-2, almost matching Mauricio Pochettino’s now favoured formation of 3-5-2. Coaches like Mourinho tend to match the opposition’s formation in an attempt to nullify any space that may be found by the positioning of their players. This alters the focus of his players. Rather than assigning his players a space for them to marshal, he assigns them a direct opponent. This minimises the decision making process and offers less risk of a lapse in concentration.
This tends to be the first step for Mourinho when assembling his plan for any game. With the opposition’s threats neutralised, he can begin to work on highlighting and exploiting any weaknesses. In Spurs’ case, it would appear Mourinho found two obvious weaknesses. The space left by their full backs when they are in possession, and the aerial ability of their defence.
The full backs are essential for width in Pochettino’s system. When Spurs are in possession Poch urges his full backs forward, stretching the pitch horizontally. This allows their more creative players to drift into central positions, giving Spurs’ midfield more passing options. When looking at the average position maps, Spurs full backs Serge Aurier and Ben Davies are found within the opposition’s half, showing Mourinho his first point of attack.Embed from Getty Images
Centre backs that are used within Pochettino’s back three are expected to possess specific qualities. This includes an ability to pass the ball under pressure as well as being mobile enough to cover the space vacated by their wing backs. However, a quality that may be lacking in Spurs’ back three is their ability to win aerial duels. This is where Mourinho found his preferred method of chance creation.
Despite the fact that Jose seemed to have identified the best way to attack Tottenham, the deciding factor as to whether his plan would work was his players ability to execute it. Here is where the criticism following the match should lie. Not on the defensive tendencies of the manager, but the players capacity to carry out the attacking instructions assigned to them.
Passing into wide areas
Although the space in wide areas was key to Mourinho’s plan, the Manchester United players showed a lack of guile in their execution. When United regained possession, attempts were made to play passes into the channels, which is exactly what the Portuguese manager wanted. This allowed the United forwards to attack the space vacated by Spurs’ wide men. However, these passes were often wasted. In fact when passing into the channels, only 2 out of the 25 attempted passes found a Manchester United player.Embed from Getty Images
It wasn’t only United’s ability in passing the ball long that was disappointing. Manchester United finished the game with a 69% passing accuracy. Not only was that the lowest pass accuracy for Jose’s men this season, it was also less than any team had averaged across the Premier League. With Mourinho adopting his safety first approach when playing other members of the top 6, his teams poor distribution was a hinderance. It gave his team little opportunity to gain ground on the opposition, a reason for the lack of goalmouth action.
Delivery of crosses
Manchester United have tended to favour high amounts of crossing this season, averaging 23 per game – the third most in the league behind Southampton and Spurs. Although this wasn’t a surprising trend, it was an area of the opposition that Mourinho targeted.Embed from Getty Images
With United struggling to get into the channels consistently, their crossing ability became key. However – similarly to their passing accuracy – their ability to find a team mate from crossing situations on the day was below average. United finished the match having completed 3 out of 24 crosses, a success rate of just 12%. Given that Jose’s team boast an average completion rate of 24% this season, it again points to player performance over managerial intent.
Although Manchester United did not score directly from a header, the winning of aerial duels was key to United’s success. Lukaku left the field having won 4 aerial duels, the most important of which led to Anthony Martial’s 81st minute winner.
Mourinho’s plan was about soaking up pressure and waiting for mistakes. Once the opposition relinquished possession, direct passing into the channels established a platform to counter attack. Although this is a very simplified version of Jose’s vision for the game, it gives an impression of logic above all else. He identified Tottenham’s two biggest weaknesses, gave his team a two tiered plan once in possession and allowed the to strategies to work in tandem.
A typical Jose Mourinho performance is no longer met with applause and admiration, but indignation. The analysis that follows tells the narrative of a man who is Anti-football, a man who is bereft of attacking intent, a man who parks the metaphorical bus. Although he tends to lean on his defensive mindset almost like a crutch, to describe Mourinho as anti-football is nothing other than reductionist.