Ken Early

José de­liv­ers an­other clas­sic hit:

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Ken Early

José Mour­inho pouted and pointed to his badge as he walked to­wards the tun­nel. This was no or­di­nary vic­tory. The 2-0 win over his old team, de­liv­ered at the third time of ask­ing, re­called the other emo­tional high point of his sec­ond spell in English foot­ball: the 2-0 win at An­field that tor­pe­doed Liver­pool’s hopes of the league ti­tle in 2014.

Both games fell on a week­end be­tween im­por­tant Euro­pean matches. Both times, Mour­inho rested key play­ers in an ap­par­ent de­ci­sion to pri­ori­tise Europe. And both times he was re­warded with ex­cel­lent per­for­mances from the ju­nior play­ers who were thrust cen­tre stage – Tomás Kalas at An­field, and Mar­cus Rash­ford at Old Traf­ford. Rash­ford scored a Jamie Vardy goal, and it will have pleased Mour­inho to see his team ex­e­cute such a killer counter-at­tack against the team he has iden­ti­fied as the kings of the counter-at­tack.

The BBC had asked Mour­inho if he was sur­prised that Chelsea were lead­ing the league. “I’m not sur­prised,” he an­swered. “I’m sur­prised with the way they play. I’m sur­prised be­cause I thought they were de­mand­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of foot­ball. I think they are very good de­fen­sively and I think they have fan­tas­tic play­ers to be a counter-at­tack team and to kill op­po­nents with three or four play­ers.”

Idi­otic de­mands

This, of course, is ex­actly how Mour­inho thinks the game ought to be played. The tar­get of these com­ments was Ro­man Abramovich and the Chelsea hi­er­ar­chy, who had tor­mented Mour­inho with – as he saw it – idi­otic de­mands that he play a more open, at­tack­ing style. He there­fore loves to talk about how sim­i­lar Conte’s Chelsea are to Mour­inho’s ver­sion.

It’s not strictly true, of course. Conte’s pref­er­ence for 3-4-3 has to do with the fact that he recog­nises Eden Haz­ard is never go­ing to do much de­fend­ing, and has in­stead set­tled on a sys­tem that doesn’t re­quire him to do much, whereas Mour­inho kept com­plain­ing to Haz­ard about his fail­ure to do any de­fend­ing un­til their re­la­tion­ship broke down.

Mour­inho also com­plained that for the third time, United were hav­ing to play Chelsea “be­fore or be­tween” Europa League games: the im­pli­ca­tion was that Chelsea, who haven’t had to play Euro­pean foot­ball this sea­son, were more rested than his team.

Yet that is not re­ally true ei­ther. An­to­nio Conte has charged to­wards the ti­tle, much as Mour­inho did at Chelsea in 2015, by pick­ing the same XI ev­ery week. Ten of Chelsea’s play­ers have played more than 2,000 min­utes in the Premier League. Eight of those were in the start­ing team at Old Traf­ford; it would have been 10 had Thibaut Cour­tois and Mar­cos Alonso not been in­jured or sick. United, by con­trast, have only five play­ers in the squad who have played more than 2,000 min­utes in the league.

On av­er­age, the 10 Chelsea out­field­ers at Old Traf­ford had played 2,266 min­utes in the Premier League, while the United out­field­ers had played 1,546. The av­er­age dif­fer­ence was 720 min­utes, or eight full Premier League matches.

This might be why Chelsea, who sup­pos­edly have the eas­ier sched­ule, looked tired and slug­gish, while United, sup­pos­edly over­stretched by the Euro­pean cam­paign, were the ones look­ing sharp and en­er­getic.

Then again, per­haps that im­pres­sion also had some­thing to do with United us­ing the sharp and en­er­getic Rash­ford up front in his pre­ferred cen­tral role.

His early goal al­lowed United to play the way Mour­inho likes his teams to play, de­fend­ing care­fully and pounc­ing on er­rors, and Chelsea made plenty of those. Mour­inho’s pre-match con­tention that Chelsea were more rested and that they only play on the counter-at­tack was in fact more true of his own team.

Of course, Rash­ford only got that early chance thanks to the ref­eree Bobby Madley’s fail­ure to spot An­der Her­rera’s hand-ball, an er­ror that caught Chelsea on the hop. Mour­inho lav­ished praise on Madley: “This young ref­eree makes me very happy . . . He was very good.”

De­ci­sions and de­flec­tions went their way. But United aren’t the sort of club that can play smash-and-grab foot­ball in ev­ery game

If only Madley had been there at Stam­ford Bridge when United lost 1-0 to Chelsea in the FA Cup and Michael Oliver sent off Her­rera for per­sis­tent foul­ing. Madley is more Mour­inho’s kind of ref: 27 matches, one red card. For com­par­i­son, the av­er­age for the Premier League this sea­son is a red card ev­ery nine matches, and for the four other ma­jor leagues it’s a red card ev­ery 3-5 matches.

Con­trol­ling the full-backs

“I was con­vinced that con­trol­ling the two play­ers that play be­hind Diego [Costa] and con­trol­ling the full-backs be­cause they go re­ally deep with two wide men would cre­ate lots of prob­lems,” Mour­inho said “When they tried to play counter-at­tack we were al­ways in con­trol of these two link po­si­tions. We did that at Stam­ford Bridge when we played with 11.”

The in­ter­est­ing thing about Mour­inho’s anal­y­sis is how fo­cused it is on nul­li­fy­ing the op­po­si­tion. On this oc­ca­sion, his side got the rub of the green. The de­ci­sions and de­flec­tions went their way. But United aren’t the sort of club that can play smash-and-grab foot­ball in ev­ery game.

And it’s one thing pro­duc­ing a one-off plan to nul­lify your old team. It’s an­other com­ing up with a vi­sion of what the next great Manch­ester United side will look like. Nine months af­ter tak­ing over, Mour­inho is no closer to show­ing us.

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