There was something special about Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. The team had a ruthless mentality whenever they took to the pitch. Sir Alex’s reign might not be remembered for redefining tactics or swamping the European competitions, but their free-flowing football was fairly enjoyable, even for the neutrals.
In practical terms, what is that one ingredient that continued to make the difference time and again under the Scot?
The answer is the exact same ingredient that was missing from Jose Mourinho’s unsalted recipe last season – unpredictability.
Unpredictability in organisation
Manchester United have always had quality players as the years passed by. But, considering the rate at which the beautiful game is evolving into a modern one, it has been proven time and again that having quality alone cannot be enough. This was one of the major problems United faced last season.
The best example of the optimum organisation of world class players is the manner in which Manchester United conquered Europe in the historic season of 2007/2008.
The players that Sir Alex had at his disposal were of a frightening measure of quality. A young and energetic Wayne Rooney, a work horse in Carlos Tevez, the wily Ryan Giggs and the boy who had the world at his feet, Cristiano Ronaldo.
There was certain air to this attack, which felt fresh every time they stepped onto the pitch. The three-pronged attack of Rooney, Ronaldo, and Tevez embodied flexibility and were the antithesis of predictability. One of the reasons they were so effective is the fact that teams often couldn’t even figure out the structure of the side.
The art of counter-attacking
Perhaps the only thing that was predictable about a side as vibrant as this lot is the fact that they could hit any team on the break. And to be fair, they had near-perfect personnel in order to do so.
One of the goals that were symbolic of such a philosophy was the third goal that they scored against Arsenal during the 2008/09 season, in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final tie. A headed clearance from Vidic, three passes and a sliding finish from Ronaldo quadrupled their lead over two legs. “From one end of the field to another in the blink of an eye,” were Clyde Tydesley’s words for the occasion, which summed up the blistering counters that United hit teams with.
Fast forward nine years, United appoint Jose Mourinho, one of the masters of the counter-attacking game, yet for some strange reason, he failed to implement his style. His Real Madrid side still hold the record for the most goals scored in a season with a mind-numbing figure of 121 goals. On a similar note, United this season under the Portuguese scored a grand total of 51 goals.
The issue is that they often struggled to break down even the weakest of teams that they stumbled across, unlike the United of old who would’ve romped their way through the same matches. United under Jose Mourinho have been undeniably predictable, and more importantly, complacent when out of possession.
"You know United are strong, they have individual qualities, but it isn’t a team who will from the start press, press, press. They have a different system and still a strong team, really good players, but you get more time and you will have more ball possession, it’s different," opined Ronald Koeman, comparing the outings that the Merseysiders have had against their local rivals Liverpool and United.
Sir Alex had an unpredictability which was hidden from the surface by the organisation of his teams. Mourinho’s United, on the other hand, play ‘guess the formation’ at certain times, with the team lacking an attacking structure.
The problem that came with Zlatan Ibrahimovic
This was also largely due to their over reliance on the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Teams knew that he was their focal point in attack, and unfortunately, for all his heroics, he was not mobile enough to play the part.
He is a world class No. 9 who is present in the team to convert the half chances at hand. Instead, the Swede dropped deeper and deeper with every passing game in an attempt to control the attack, often leaving no essential threat inside the 18-yard-box.
Ibrahimovic gave his all for the side this past season, but by his standards, has had a number of games where his impact was breaching the negative zones. In contrast to the unpredictable attack, it was more of a pass to Zlatan, Zlatan creating the chances, and the rest running off him to try and score. This constantly drew out the complacency in players which made the attack often look dull and noir. It was slow enough to allow teams not only to regroup but do so in excellent fashion to deny Mourinho’s men any space.
A revamp in style, not personnel
Manchester United luring a world class No.9 to Old Trafford doesn’t necessarily mean that their problems will all be solved by a player signing on a sheet of paper. United need to revamp their strikeforce not with a bunch of new recruits, rather with one player helping spark the change in the way they attack. Whoever this player is cannot just be another magnetic figure such as the legendary Swede, but has to be a mobile and agile carrier of the attack.
Mourinho’s former sides have displayed the devastating results of hitting on the break in the past but his current side have flattered to deceive in the same regard. Now that there won’t be a target man like the former PSG man to depend on, the Special One has to rebuild the attack purely based on this prowess – something that he once took pride in.
Marcus Rashford is the only name that comes to mind when these qualities come to into the question, as he has done when Ibrahimovic wasn’t available. But it would be a shame if England’s most successful club would be solely depending on the sheer brilliance of a 19-year-old Mancunian. They need reinforcements not in number but in quality, whether it’s one striker or two.
And that quality is something very specific – to spark the change in the way Manchester United attack, like the good old days when they were once a fearsome attacking unit.Published 25 Jun 2017, 15:25 IST