Sevilla v Manchester United: Montella and Mourinho unified in pursuit of identity
Over the years, Jose Mourinho has earned a reputation as a fine deflector, strategically highlighting specific issues in order to take the attention away from other subjects.
While he may not have brought up the situation relating to Paul Pogba's form and the reports of their apparently strained relationship, Mourinho certainly did little to cool the discussion with his "lies" and "b*******" rant in the news conference before Saturday's laboured 2-0 win at Huddersfield Town.
And, just like that, with Wednesday' Champions League tie against Sevilla on the horizon, few people are talking about United's recent struggles or their laborious performances - everyone is talking about Pogba.
NO TEAM IDENTITY, NO FEAR FACTOR
It is worth noting that many of United's problems arguably begin and end with Pogba, the player who could - and should - be the answer to some of Mourinho's biggest issues.
It is well documented that, at United, Pogba has rarely occupied his favoured position on the left of a midfield trio in a 4-3-3 formation, with the former Juventus star generally deployed in a deeper two alongside Nemanja Matic, preventing him from playing with the freedom that brings the best out of his immense creative talents.
Shoehorning Pogba into a role that restricts him is detrimental to the side in general and is surely a major contributing factor to United's alarming lack of identity under Mourinho, and the consequent absence of a "fear factor" - an accusation levelled by Newcastle United defender Jamaal Lascelles after their recent 1-0 win over the Red Devils.
They may be second in the Premier League, but if a player for struggling Newcastle believes United have no "fear factor", then their hopes of going deep into the Champions League already look doomed, even against a Sevilla side who have endured a turbulent season of their own.
Next up for #MUFC is a return to @ChampionsLeague action, when we face Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium on Wednesday night! pic.twitter.com/NH09TigCcS
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) February 18, 2018
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Vincenzo Montella finds himself in a similar position at Sevilla to Mourinho in some senses, particularly in terms of a search for a team identity. Much like United, the Andalusians have generally been associated with a free-flowing, attack-minded style in the recent past. Even under the pragmatic Unai Emery they set pulses racing with a vibrant and devastating brand of counter-attacking football that won them three successive Europa League titles.
But any semblance of a specific 'philosophy' quickly vanished during the ill-fated tenure of Eduardo Berizzo. Billed as being a ready-made - if less gung-ho - replacement for Jorge Sampaoli, things were never right under the former Celta Vigo coach. Too often Sevilla had to rely on individual moments to secure results and, while his sacking - shortly after successful prostate cancer surgery - attracted criticism, the combination of consistently concerning performances and strained relations with key players ultimately cost him his job.
#SevillaFC dismiss Eduardo Berizzo
— Sevilla FC (@SevillaFC_ENG) December 22, 2017
With Sampaoli's systems long forgotten and the team looking alarmingly muddled, Montella essentially had to start from scratch in his attempts to establish a setup that works for the team. The fact Sevilla were embarrassed 5-3 at home by bitter rivals Real Betis in his first LaLiga game tells all about their cohesion when the Italian arrived.
Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of sporting director Oscar Arias, the man given the seemingly impossible task of replacing Monchi, their revered transfer guru and inspiration for Sevilla's successes in the past 12 years. His exit to Roma was probably a bigger blow than the departure of any coach or player in the club's history, while Arias' signings since have so far been more miss than hit.
29 years of @leonsfdo: Cries of glory for a LEGENDARY era
17 seasons that have transformed #SevillaFC forever#vamosmisevilla pic.twitter.com/7WG4rd6lxe
— Sevilla FC (@SevillaFC_ENG) 31 March 2017
But Montella is doing his best to steady things in a new era. While Sevilla's erratic performances remain a worry, the new coach certainly deserves praise for quickly identifying a preferred starting XI, setting out a style that relies heavily on wingers and calming some disgruntled players. Steven N'Zonzi, Joaquin Correa, Pablo Sarabia and club-record signing Luis Muriel were all underwhelming under Berizzo, but they have been crucial since the turn of the year.
Despite Sevilla's improvement and the talents of the exquisite Ever Banega in midfield, however, their lack of consistency means this is a tie United should be winning, regardless of Mourinho's Pogba frustrations.
But, as two fine recent wins over Atletico Madrid showed, this is a Sevilla side that likes the big occasion and should not be underestimated. Elimination for United will leave little else to play for this season and Mourinho's talents for deflection will need to reach Luke Skywalker levels if he is to come out the other side unscathed.