Reminder: Never, ever, write off Manchester United and Jose Mourinho
Manchester United's Semifinal victory against Tottenham Hotspur depicted several things
As the final whistle blew at Wembley on 31st January 2018, twelve faces looked down at the ground. They were yet to fathom the magnitude of the loss that they had suffered, as Mauricio Pochettino’s men had bruised and battered the United players with their constant high-press.
Jose Mourinho’s players were left clueless at the end of the ninety minutes, as they were shell-shocked with the domination shown by Tottenham Hotspur in their adopted home ground.
The earlier encounter
The match was full of individual errors, coupled with United’s lack of composure and attitude on the ball. After going two nil down quite early in the first half, Spurs continued to trouble and breach United’s backline. Harry Kane dropped down a line and outmuscled the giant that is Chris Smalling to feed Christian Eriksen on numerous occasions.
The Dane switched the play, worked on the flanks and David de Gea was left startled with the fluidity of the attacking moves displayed by Spurs. Dele Alli and Eriksen combined to make Nemanja Matic look like some EFL Championship player making his debut in the Premier League.
United’s midfield and defence were non-existent that day, and well, Paul Pogba was having one of those matches in which Moussa Dembele outclassed the Frenchman as if they were playing different sports altogether.
Alexis Sanchez made his debut for Manchester United in the Premier League, and was jeered off every time he received possession of the ball. The flipside of the situation was that he hardly ever managed to keep hold of the ball as Kieran Trippier owned that flank that day.
United, overall, had such a forgettable outing that Pogba was apparently involved in a touchline bust-up with Jose Mourinho owing to the manager’s displeasure over the Frenchman’s positional indiscipline.
The Red Devils were outnumbered at the centre of the park, and every single player dropped their head down in shame as Spurs rejoiced their victory with thousands of white shirts supporting them at Wembley.
It was one of the most shambolic performances by United in their recent history. A game where they were tactically outclassed, physically outmuscled and eventually brought down in every department.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones had games to forget, as Jones scored an own goal whilst trying to clear out a simple ball with no pressure from any of the Spurs’ players around him. It led to their temporary ousters from the team, though, Smalling managed to keep hold of his place due to constant niggles and injuries to other central defenders.
Jones, on the other hand, went out for a lengthy injury layoff and was effectively replaced by Eric Bailly or Victor Lindelof in other games.
Jose was ridiculed for his approach, and for playing a midfield that was so beautifully broken down by Spurs. Mauricio Pochettino had masterminded a brilliant game plan, and his loyal and effective players carried that out without much fuss. United never looked like creating anything notable on the field, as questions were raised over the cohesion in the group.
Even three passes were not being stitched together; the forwards failed to trouble Hugo Lloris and in the end, everything combined to result in what was a statement-making victory for Pochettino’s men. It was a sign of things that we could expect from Spurs; an excellent indication of the inimitable team that Pochettino was creating.
Down but not out
Many predicted it to be the downfall of United’s season, and by extension, Jose Mourinho’s career at Manchester United. Being outclassed in England by such a young manager is not something that Jose is used to. He has always been known for having a clear, definite, effective and exciting game plan for big matches.
To see his team of such young, talented individuals being beaten by another vibrant set of players was infuriating for the manager.
Hence, when United were drawn to play against the Spurs in the FA Cup semifinals, everyone expected a similar game. Especially considering that the semifinal was being played at Wembley, there was a sense of anxiety and frustration mixed with fear amongst United fans.
They had the fear of losing against the North Londoners, who wouldn’t have dared to trouble the Red Devils some five-odd years ago. Such had been the impact of the loss that talks of Pogba potentially being dropped surrounded the clash to save him from the humiliation of losing the duel against Dembele again.
What they forgot was that this is Manchester United; a club based on pride and attitude, determination and high work ethic. A club that had built its base on coming back, no, on roaring back from losing situations to leave a mark on the game.
They have been renowned for the excellent; numerous times, they have brought themselves up from seemingly hopeless occurrences in the match to fight back resurgently.
There is a certain swagger, a character that a player and a manager require to work functionally well at Manchester United. When you are a part of the most successful club in England, the media just loves to get one over you. The constant pressure of the fans, the unstoppable gossips mongers, everything accumulates to put you down during the big games.
The significance of the FA Cup has seemingly dipped in recent years. However, the importance that it carries on the minds of the players and managers cannot be debated. On this one occasion, it meant the world for both Jose and Pochettino.
Both the managers have managed and improved their clubs massively in the past couple of years, but inconsistency is one issue that neither of them has been able to tackle. It all boiled down to this one game when everyone fancied the Argentine to once again propel his style of football over Jose’s sturdy, strong players. Especially after the game at Wembley in January, Spurs were the favourites against United.
Jose’s team were the underdogs. Not many would accept it now, but all of those people had it in mind prior to kickoff.
“Oh, he’s finished. Can’t handle players; will park the bus and lose. So boring. Jose is dying a slow death at United.”
One thing that we all forgot was how the Portuguese tactician loves these small battles. The duels in which his talent is forgotten by the masses; the time when no one cares to give a single thought over how well-versed and trained he is to not give a single thought to all those predictions regarding him. People forget how he has controlled these young set of players.
They don’t care about how deeply he has impacted players like Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, who were previously wingers by trade and now converted into such reliable fullbacks. We don’t think about the state of the squad that he inherited; the deadwood that he had to cut off, the players he had to mould to suit his style.
We simply ignore how he played four defenders bought by Sir Alex Ferguson in an FA Cup semifinal match when his cross-city rival goes on a spending spree to beef up fullbacks and centre backs for fun.
We forget about how he has had to adapt to the transfer policy of the club and has had to take calculated small decisions in order to arrange the squad.
We never spare a thought for how this man took over the squad with two worn off central defenders, absolutely no playmaker (Juan Mata has seemingly been on a decline), no wingers and no reliable strikers. He had a fragile defence to look after, no fullbacks to provide the width and no holding midfielder on whom he could rely on for the length of the whole season.
Heck, he won two crucial trophies in his first-year in-charge, But well, why would we care to appreciate that work uh? Wouldn’t we rather acknowledge other managers who took better squads and players that are more experienced and still won nothing? Who is Jose huh? The same manager who ruined Chelsea the year after he won the Premier League title in the most convincing of manners?
The same man who was so desperate for the Manchester United job ever since a certain Scot hung up his boots? The same Portuguese manager who couldn’t get the best out of a 25-year-old midfielder? Oh, let him learn something from his other counterparts. After all, what do 25 trophies including three European cups count for?
Let us label him boring and finished, and completely ignore every single challenge that he has tackled through during his almost two year-long stay at Old Trafford. Isn’t that what a Manchester United manager expected to go through?
Heaps of hatred and ignorance towards his work. All of this will accumulate to bring him down from his post and then the club will have a panic attack and replace his ineffectively.”
Isn’t that what all of us thought before the game?
Except, that was simply not meant to be. When a dapper looking Jose Mourinho marched his players outside the dressing room at Wembley, there was a certain sign of assurance and confidence in his face. “I have got it right this time lads, just do what you are supposed to on the field.” Wearing just a white shirt as part of an uncharacteristically formal attire, he said some final words to his players before letting them go on the field.
He waited for the opposition manager, his great friend and the ever so likeable Mauricio Pochttino on the touchline, and gave him a warm handshake and hug, full of respect and compassion.
They shared a laugh, but little did we know that it was Jose who was going to have the last one. As I sat in front of my idiot box, boiled with anxiety, fear and excitement, the confidence of this man was a reassuring sign for the weak-hearted person that I am.
Sir Alex Ferguson had made his way into the stands to witness the work of a manager to whom he had dedicated an entire chapter in his autobiography.
An opportunity to exact revenge
However, as the whistle blew, and the players settled themselves into the groove, Davinson Sanchez released a sumptuous ball from the backline for Christian Eriksen to chase. As the Dane ran behind it with no one near him to challenge, one could see tempers raising at the touchline. Jose closely watched when Eriksen crossed the ball to the much-maligned Dele Alli, who, in turn, left no chance at all for the superhuman that is David de Gea.
Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Manchester United.
It seemed that the stage was set for the Lilywhites to replicate their January performance. Harry Kane laid off the ball to Eriksen for a shot at goal but the Dane sent the ball flying to row Z in the stands. United looked a bit torn and unsettled and were again, finding it difficult to stretch their possession-based play for long enough.
Spurs were energetic and full of intent, as United were trying their best to hold up some control over the game. There was much time left, but we all know how well Spurs can dominate once they grab their hold on the proceedings.
Their free-flowing front four were against the most vulnerable defence that a United fan can imagine playing for the Red Devils.
Minutes were passing, tensions were increasing, the sight of United crashing out in a knockout was very visible. Just twenty minutes into the game and everyone started doubting United’s chances in the game again.
However, Paul Pogba soon decided to leave a mark in the match.
Spurs had taken a bit of confidence from the goal and were moving the ball very quickly from the back. Kieran Trippier was left untroubled by Sanchez until now. Trippier got the ball and he tried to move it away but saw Paul Pogba in his tracks near him.
The Englishman calmly passed the ball to Moussa Dembele, and now it was going to be a clash between the two midfield powerhouses from both the teams.
The Pogba of old would have let Dembele pass the ball out and wouldn’t have tried to press the Belgian. However, this Pogba, the one trained by Jose Mourinho in both technical and mental aspects of the game, knows what he has to do.
The Frenchman forced his incredible physical strength on Dembele (yeah, the same player who so mercilessly defeated Pogba in January) and very calmly won the ball back from his counterpart.
As Dembele tried to recover from the blow, Pogba used his incredible passing range, to tear apart Jan Vertonghen and Ben Davies, and sent in a cross to a 5’7"-tall Alexis Sanchez behind those two defenders.
Sanchez did not have the height to get up to that cross. However, he sure as hell had the determination to jump high enough as he placed is so accurately into the far corner that Michel Vorm could only stare at the ball.
As Sanchez went off to celebrate a trademark Wembley goal, he pointed in acknowledgment to Pogba. Both the players, who had been so vastly criticized in the recent months, raised their game, responded to their manager and played a part in the equalizer that neutralized the bundles of confidence that Spurs had taken via the first goal.
Tottenham Hotspur 1-1 Manchester United.
The game was rather open thereafter, as both the teams never looked satisfied with sitting back. United moved ahead with precision and confidence as if to say, “Yeah, shut up with the bus thing mate”.
The rise of the Phoenix
The bite and gutsy attitude and defending of Ander Herrera simply became too much to tolerate for the Spurs as the Basque-based star broke off attacks and was full of energy while moving from box-to-box.
In the box, Phil Jones put an incredible final tackle on Dele Alli, very near to the post. Chris Smalling marked Kane out of the game with his supreme aerial prowess that left thousands of fans surprised at what they were witnessing.
Kane, perhaps the best striker in Europe, had a difficult time handling the likes of Jones and Smalling, two of the most maligned defenders in the country. Naïve, huh?
However, as the game progressed, Jose had that game face on when he tirelessly instructed his players from the touchline and asked them to be aware of their positions when defending. He sure did not want a repeat of Young’s mistake for Alli’s goal, and made his best effort from the touchline to make his players know about his intentions.
One more goal from Pochettino’s men, and the game would have been in Spurs’ control again. As Eric Dier took a hopeful 30-yard shot, the ball bounced back after hitting the woodwork.
Maybe, Jose was lucky. Or, maybe, luck favours the brave.
United took a lot of time to come out from their dressing room after the half-time, as they were probably being reminded about their duties by the manager yet again.
Spurs kicked off the game, as United recovered possession of the ball again. They were much more aware of their defensive positioning this time around. Ander Herrera was playing in an inward right-midfield role, as Pogba was given the freedom to march down the left flank to tee up with Sanchez. However, there was one thing that must have impressed Jose after the halftime.
Pogba on point
The Frenchman was running back to defend whenever required. He was tracking back his adversary midfielders as if to state a point to the manager and the fans.
Jose’s chest pumped with pride on an occasion when Pogba won the ball off Spurs and then displayed some beautiful composure to start a menacing counter attack. He was now, finally, fulfilling precisely what was asked out of him.
Discipline, consistency, and the ability to defend in one box and then accordingly attack the other box; three things that are always demanded from a modern midfielder in the English game.
As the game was entering the final quarter, United looked much more likely to score the second goal than Spurs. There was an aura of confidence and arrogance in their play that made Spurs look half as threatening as they are capable.
United regularly rallied around Spurs’ penalty box, and the moment was inevitably going to arrive. As United broke on a counter once again, Sanchez displayed some tireless energy and mesmerizing footwork to get better of Trippier near the box. Sanchez then squared off the ball to Lukaku, whose touch was sloppy.
However, that touch fell into Jesse Lingard’s path, and one expected Lingard to score a goal at Wembley; something, that he is renowned to do. It was a difficult angle for him to shoot from, so he curbed his intentions, and simply left the ball for a marauding Ander Herrera.
The Spaniard subsequently pierced his way into the box and shot it astutely past a helpless Vorm, who again, could do nothing.
Wembley roared back as United chants were being sung all around. The Basque star, who very well knows what it means to play for a club of this stature, proudly showed off the badge on his chest. His knees slid into celebration as his teammates pounced from behind in happiness. United had scored a winner. Spurs were down and out.
Tottenham Hotspur 1-2 Manchester United.
After this, the plan was clear. United’s formation was watertight, as they did not leave any spaces in the midfield. Spurs could not find any area of the pitch where they could exploit United’s defence.
Smalling and Jones easily cleared any lobbed balls into the box and Jones as Harry Kane went missing in the game. Even then, Jose looked to attack, as he brought in Marcus Rashford who failed to finish off an easy chance against Vorm. Lukaku, who dropped to the midfield, won the ball, turned that giant body and passed it to an unmarked Rashford in the other half, creating that chance.
As the final whistle blew, Jose raised his two hands in applause as the job was done, and no one could accuse him of parking the bus. He did it his own way and made his players believe that it was the correct way. He provided the supporters an excellent classic semifinal, as his team progressed to the finals of the FA Cup.
Jose walked off into the tunnel, again, victorious against a big opponent, after having defeated the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in the course of last two months. Most of us refuse to praise him as much as we would the other lesser-accomplished managers, but well, does he even need our approval?
Jose Mourinho walked into Wembley, owned the game before him and his players walked off with their heads held high, after doing what he does best. Winning.