Jose Mourinho has always been a fascinating manager to observe. At his best he is a Machiavellian genius, at his worst a petulant child, raging against a world he feels is out to get him and his team. He is as close in character to Sir Alex as you’ll get in the modern game, but United’s greatest manager mostly knew where to draw the line. Mourinho has been heavily criticised in the past for being unable to do the same, something which was cited as a reason why he did not get the job in 2013. Before he came to United the Portuguese was a bundle of emotion, a mischievous winner with a glint in his eye, ready to take on the world. But the United version has been different, more withdrawn, less twinkle, more rankle. Despite claiming the contrary, Jose hasn’t looked like he’s enjoying the experience. Perhaps that’s a result of age, but this incarnation has at times appeared tired and morose and his attacks on perceived injustice have been erratic and demonstrating an unwillingness to self-critique.
Of course, much like Fergie, a great deal of what Mourinho says is to deflect criticism off of his team and onto himself. Often his complaints are valid, for instance the frustration at the state of the pitch in Rostov and the observation that in favouring TV schedules over doing what is best for its teams the Premier League damages the chances of its team’s succeeding in Europe. Perhaps the English sides would attack the Europa League with more gusto if they knew they would not be playing again until the following Monday.
However, at times his claims betray a lack of self-doubt, or a willingness to keep it a secret. On Thursday, at Old Trafford, Paul Pogba picked up a muscle strain which, fortunately, will not keep him out for too long. The 24 year old has been ailing for weeks, in a dire run of form after a terrific winter. Having had no pre-season and after playing twice a week for most of the season a drop in energy levels was inevitable, as was an injury. Despite the pressure to win games, it has been clear for several weeks that the player needed a rest. Not to Mourinho though, who opted to play him in the second leg against St.Etienne despite United holding a commanding 3-0 lead and in Russia against Rostov on a pitch which was conducive to nothing but punts and headers. Finally the player’s body rebelled as Pogba and his teammates laboured against the Russians in the second leg. When asked about the injury Mourinho blamed fixture congestion and game scheduling rather than apportioning some blame to himself for ragging the player all season, even when not necessary. This was deflection alright, but away from the individual. We should perhaps be grateful that Ibrahimovic got a suspension when he did as surely he, despite his miraculous conditioning, would have been next to succumb.
Mourinho’s on-pitch decisions and touchline demeanour are as erratic as his patter. After switching to three at the back for the game in Rostov and then retaining it at Stamford Bridge, he surprised everyone by opting for the formation for the Europa League home game last week. Given that the previous two matches had not brought a win and that United’s options at centre back are erratic to say the least, this was particularly curious. It was difficult to see the benefit of an extra defender against Rostov at home, as the Russians defended deep and showed little ambition. There’s little doubt that the visitors are a resilient bunch, but the system left United outnumbered further forward and blunted on the left by Daley Blind’s lack of pace and trickery. It was a laboured performance and the team were indebted to Sergio Romero for making three excellent saves. Ultimately blushes were spared for Mourinho when Juan Mata, who he was about to substitute out of nothing but habit, turned in Ibrahimovic’s flick from a right wing cross. It finished 1-0 and United progress to the quarter finals, where they will face Anderlecht, thanks to the power of the Gilluminati. All hail the warm balls. With arguably the two most dangerous sides, Lyon and Besiktas, facing each other in the final eight the path to the trophy and the Champions League is opening up nicely. Play like they did over two legs against Rostov however and we may find ourselves back running this marathon next season.
Mourinho didn’t look too pleased to be through despite expressing the opposite sentiment. Instead he took the opportunity to moan about the scheduling of the Middlesborough game on Sunday morning, suggesting that a point would be great result, but that he anticipated defeat. Moyesie would have been proud of that one. As if to prove a point, the manager then proceeded to pick something approximating his weakest possible team at the Riverside, in what initially appeared to be a 3-5-2 formation, but which was actually a four with Eric Bailly out of position at right back and Antonio Valencia pushed forward. With Pogba injured and Herrera suspended, he decided to rest Henrikh Mkhitaryan and bring Ashley Young in at left wing back. This, at least, made more sense that persisting with Blind there.
For seventy minutes United were largely quite decent, if never entirely convincing. Marcus Rashford’s pace was vital to a counter-attacking formation against a team who hadn’t won in the Premier League since mid-December and had scored three goals in their preceding ten games in the competition. Fortunately, the visitors were every bit as wretched as their form suggested and Mourinho’s team could have been out of sight by half time. Except they weren’t, because of, y’know, the finishing. Fortunately Young and Fellaini revived some of their classic Van Gaal rat-a-tat, the former crossing excellently for the latter to head in at the far post. It wasn’t the Belgian’s first league goal since 2015. Bang tidy bruv. After the break profligacy again reigned, but fortunately Jesse Lingard awoke from his averageness, as he occasionally does, ran with the ball from the half way line and fired a zinger into the top corner from 25 yards, inviting Victor Valdez to pick that one out. The Spaniard did as he was told.
Then Mourinho did something weird. Two goals up against a side who are incapable of scoring and whose only route of attack is to cross balls to their target man striker, the entire side dropped off, sat deep and allowed Middlesborough to cross balls to their target man striker. Mourinho subbed off Mata, probably without even knowing he was doing it, for Rojo, and United went to some sort of shit six at the back formation. Because some of those in that six at the back aren’t the best at football a goal felt inevitable. Even more inevitably the culprit was Chris Smalling, losing control of his limbs and bowels and miscuing a simple clearance to Gestede to slide home. Boro couldn’t believe they’d scored. Neither could their fans. Instead of seeing the error of their ways, United just carried on in this vein, a pathetic spectacle, and one they only just about got away with. The tactic will do little to convince the critics, who see Mourinho as an inherently negative coach, that they are mistaken. Late on Valdez slipped when trying to clear and Antonio Valencia pounced to steal the ball, tap home and engage in some sort of shite celebration with Fellaini that is usually reserved for associates of Jesse Lingard. Mourinho, perhaps disgusted at the sight of two grown men doing gangland fist bumps, stormed off down the tunnel celebrating wildly. Indeed, he showed elation with each goal on Sunday having been unable to raise a smile in the same circumstances for months, including at Wembley. Strange man.
Still, it was a huge three points, with Arsenal losing and Liverpool and City sharing the points at the Etihad. Indeed, having fallen to seventh after Everton’s win on Saturday, United now find themselves fifth. I know, right? Top four still remains a long shot, but neither City nor Liverpool look entirely convincing. Nevertheless, the Europa League remains the most likely route into the Champions League and the Anderlecht tie keeps that target alive in two competitions. Unless Mourinho persists with playing all of his centre backs at once, like. The international break now arrives at an opportune time and United have the opportunity to drive upwards when they face West Brom at home in two weeks. You could be forgiven for being less confident than if that tie were at The Hawthorns.