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Premier League 2018-19: Mourinho's United and the problem with their style of play

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Obinna Delight Ikenna

Jose Mourinho is one of the most successful managers in football. Domestic and European titles have followed him everywhere. His managerial CV is so impressive, it seems impossible that he would be questioned at any level of the game, but he is. The questions that have surrounded Mourinho's coaching career have always been related to his avid obsession with controversy and his style of play.

The 2018-19 season has already been an exciting one. It saw the introduction of two other top coaches to the top six mix. Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri filled the vacant managerial positions at Arsenal FC and Chelsea FC respectively.

This has brought a new dimension to the play and competitiveness of the top six. Manchester City like every other Pep Guardiola team, boss the ball, press and play out from the back. Liverpool, on the other hand, have been properly molded into Jurgen Klopp's image.

Their game involves 'gengen' pressing, mobility and quick transitions. Tottenham press and pass the ball very effectively under Pochettino. Sarri-ball and Emery-ball have already become a popular phenomenon among fans of Chelsea and Arsenal respectively. The former involves passing and movement while the latter involves quick transition, pressing and playing out from the back.

In the midst of all these ideologies and managerial philosophies, Mourinho's Manchester United are conspicuous by their lack of any. These ideologies are important because they form the identity of the team. They are the bedrock of how a team wants to play, pass, defend and score.

The only consistent plan Manchester United seem to have is to bring on Fellaini whenever they are losing and lob the ball to him and try to create some goalscoring chances. This tactic has worked well on many occasions (games away to Juventus this season and home to Arsenal last season) but is not workable in the long run for a team with the history and culture of Manchester United.

Paul Merson in his pre-match prediction for United's game against Everton earlier in the season said:

"You watch the other 'top six' teams and there's a plan there. You can see a pattern to their play and how they have scored a goal. When United score, it's like someone has fallen over the ball and it's gone in. It's just happened - you do not watch it and think 'they've worked on that'. It's all off the cuff with United".

After United's Manchester derby defeat much was made of a supposed 'gulf in class' between City and United. This notion received widespread acclaim and acceptance among fans and pundits alike.

There is no gulf in class between City and United. Fred and Alexis Sanchez are two players that were extensively scouted by Manchester city and were well on their way to becoming City players before United beat City to the punch.

Have they suddenly become inferior to a team they could have joined and maybe improved?There are few players on both teams marginally better than their counterparts on the other team. However, the idea of a gulf in class is preposterous.

Alexis Sanchez and Fred were almost signed by City
Alexis Sanchez and Fred were almost signed by City

The difference is not in the class or quality of the players. It is in the understanding of what exactly the coach demands each player to do. When City play, they know where and when to pass, to press, the movement of their fellow players and all other stipulations of the style they want to play. United seem not to have that understanding.

They neither press as a team nor sit back as one. There seems to be no pattern to their passing, movement or style. It always seems like they require a mistake from their opposition or a moment of genius from one of their players to create something for them. It is why they were thoroughly outplayed in the Manchester derby.

The tactical nous of Jose Mourinho is not in question. His ability to adapt his team to face various kinds of opposition is unrivaled in football. However, the beautiful game has evolved and top teams dominate the opposition by effecting their style of play on them. The continued success of Pep Guardiola is a testament to that.

However, Mourinho is not Pep and must not see the game the way Pep sees it. However, he must borrow a leaf out of Pep's handbook and institute a style that his team can relate to while bearing all the hallmarks of a Jose Mourinho team.

It is a matter of opinion if one thinks Pep, Klopp, Sarri or any other top coach will get more results out of this United side. However, there is no doubt that they will get them to play in a particular style, pattern or ideology.


Edited by Abhinav Munshi

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