The problem with moulding your strategy to the opposition is that you have no main strategy of your own.
Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United pulled off something of an upset as they beat Chelsea 2-0 at Old Trafford on Sunday. It’s telling, though, that losing to a team on a 21-match unbeaten run away from home should be seen as failure from Antonio Conte’s point of view.
United fielded a team with the Europa League in mind. With only seven league games to go – and Manchester City, Arsenal and title-chasing Tottenham Hotspur still to play – that seems like the smart play just now.
And the paradox is that such a performance from such a team was perhaps the most exciting part of Manchester United’s season so far. The pace of Marcus Rashford and, to a slightly lesser extend, Jesse Lingard up front coupled with the good jobs that Ander Herrera and Marcos Rojo did on Diego Costa and Eden Hazard show that United could have a bright future under Mourinho.
And yet, this was a second-string side in many respects, with bigger players – both in a metaphorical and literal sense – lying in wait for Thursday night’s clash with Anderlecht.
It’s easy to forget, in the wake of Rashford’s show-stealing performance against Chelsea, that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has looked like United’s only big-time player for most of the season. And the media reaction to one victory seems so skewed just now that almost feels like sitting on a see-saw.
Whereas before, United were a team in trouble, a lack of movement coupled with ageing players, they are now supposedly a team of bright young talent. That can’t be right
The truth is more complex. United are a team of both: they have the young talent, but it most be remembered that Rashford isn’t part of their best starting XI just yet.
Whether it’s by design or just a happy flaw of a questionable policy toward young players, Mourinho has used the young England man perfectly this season. In terms of his development, too many games are a killer, whilst Rashford has been handed 14 Premier League starts this season.
Rather than becoming a player of tender years whom United rely on for points, Rashford is a young talent who is given his chance on a regular basis, but who doesn’t have the weight of the world on his shoulders.
But if United’s performance against Chelsea was a masterstroke, it will take a tactical masterstroke from Mourinho every week if he’s to win the Premier League. Because adapting your strategy to your opponents every single week is difficult.
And both of those strands show United’s performance at the weekend: United aren’t yet good enough to win games like this without it being considered a masterstroke, nor do they have the right team to compete at the top – especially if their own attacking plan for their main starting lineup seems to be give it to Zlatan to do something world class.
If it was an encouraging weekend for United, it also showed just how far they have to go.