Since Jose Mourinho arrived at Manchester United, one criticism has seemed to rise above all others: that the Red Devils have gone against their attacking identity, content to win games by strangling the opposition into submission.
There are always nuances missed by such bold statements, though. For a start, only Manchester City – whose start to the season has seen them open up a gap between themselves and the rest of the Premier League – have outscored United, and only United and the league leaders have scored more than 20 goals in ten Premier League games so far.
United have also lost only one game this season, drawing two. Indeed, when Jose Mourinho erroneously mentioned in a press conference after the Tottenham game at the weekend that he’d only failed to win one game all season, you can see just what he thinks of draws, especially those away from home or in big games: avoiding defeat is incredibly important to the Portuguese.
But perhaps United’s most impressive performance since Mourinho’s arrival was the one against Chelsea at Old Trafford in the spring.
Before the game, nothing seemed to be in United’s favour: they had a Europa League tie to look forward to, weren’t interested in the league, and Chelsea were rampant on their way to the league title. To make matters worse, Antonio Conte’s side had won the reverse fixture in October 4-0. And when Mourinho named a side with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the bench, looked as though United had no chance.
A dynamic front three of Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard, who started either side of Marcus Rashford changed the face of the game, however, as United were solid in defence and terrorised Chelsea on the counter attack. Rashford in particular was a constant threat, but perhaps it was telling that Mourinho’s biggest tactical success in that game was employing Ander Herrera to man-mark Eden Hazard, nullifying Chelsea’s main attacking threat.
Defensive doesn’t have to be dull, of course. When playing against a player like Hazard, it makes sense to attempt to dull your opposition’s potency. Just because Mourinho’s first thought was to stop the opposition doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right call.
But it still remains one of the rare sparkling performances from a Manchester United team in a big game under Mourinho, even if they seem to have established themselves as a genuine title contender this season. And perhaps the answer to the dullness many have accused Mourinho of this season is in deploying Marcus Rashford as a central striker, a position where he’s only started one game all season. That was the weekend’s victory over Tottenham at Old Trafford, but even that is misleading: it was also the only time when Mourinho played a 3-5-2 formation, meaning Rashford was able to start alongside Lukaku, even if he ended up drifting wide on the left more often than not.
Perhaps the problem that Mourinho has is that, despite being able to field a side with three – at least theoretically – dynamic and direct attackers in Rashford, Young and Lingard, he has mostly filled his side with physically imposing players as opposed to smaller, technical ones. The contrast with Manchester City, in that regard, couldn’t be more stark. All the more reason, then, to look to the pace and agility of players like Rashford and Anthony Martial, especially in the games where United sit deep.
This weekend, United face Chelsea once again, this time at Stamford Bridge. And although Jose Mourinho will have bad memories of returning to his former club just over a year ago, he will have a better, more recent memory of beating Antonio Conte’s side with a performance which was seen as a tactical masterclass rather than a Mourinho spoiling exercise. Perhaps after being criticised so heavily since their 0-0 draw with Liverpool, United will take the opportunity to look back to their victory over Chelsea last season as a blueprint, playing Marcus Rashford in a central role to terrorise Chelsea’s defence again.