Jose Mourinho announced his return to English Football and opened his spell at Manchester United with a 2-1 victory over Leicester City in the FA Community Shield. One of Mourinho’s new signings, Zlatan Ibrahimović, clinched the victory with a late header after a superb Antonio Valencia cross. United took the lead after an audacious Jesse Lingard run; Lingard’s extra time goal against Crystal Palace booked United’s place in this season’s curtain drawer. Leicester City drew level in the second half after Jamie Vardy capitalized on an under-hit pass from Maroune Fellaini.
Here are four questions from yesterday’s game:
Is Eric Bailly the new Vidic?
United’s new boy is already a fan favorite after yesterday game. The Ivorian defender, brought in from Villareal, was voted the Man of the Match for his impressive display characterized by good judgement, great strength and excellent pace.
United’s central defense has been far from solid since the storied Ferdinand-Vidic partnership and many expected that a thorough revamp would be Mourinho’s number one priority. Mourinho did just that by making Bailly his first signing. Mourinho’s judgment was trusted, but many United fans had not seen or heard much about Bailly before he made the move. He has been a constant fixture in the pre-season alongside Daley Blind, who it appears, will have to play another season at center back given the intense competition for midfield places.
United fans were quick to make comparisons to Vidic, a man still held in high regard among the United faithful. It is difficult not to see the similarities, but Bailly is far from stabilizing and leading United’s backline like Vidic did. United has found themselves a tough guy suited for the rigors of the EPL as he showed against Vardy. Bailly will get better the longer he spends with Mourinho, a man known for defensive organization.
What happens when Chris Smalling returns from injury and suspension will be a tough call for Mourinho. Mourinho has stressed his preference for “specialists,” meaning Blind will have to make way. Smalling has two advantages: height and strength. But Blind’s intelligence makes up for his lack of pace and strength.
Who will play in United’s midfield?
In all of United’s preseason games, Mourinho has not used a consistent formula in the midfield. While other departments have featured a consistent cast, Mourinho, just like LVG, has tried different combinations. Against Leicester, it was Carrick, Fellaini and Lingard, a combination that induced bewilderment on first viewing especially when Anders Herrera, Juan Mata, Morgan Schneiderlin and Henrikh Mhiktaryan were amongst the reserves.
A big problem for Mourinho is that he has too many players at his disposal to play in midfield. Mourinho has made it known that he intends to play high intensity football and deviate sharply from LVG’s slow and possession heavy football. Minus Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger (due to age and lack of pace), maybe Fellaini (due to lack of pace and general clumsiness) and maybe Mata (due to an elevated sense of worth as a “luxury player”), everyone vying for a role in United’s midfield possesses enough pace and work ethic to thrive in a fast and fluid system.
Before the Leicester game, it was reported that Paul Pogba was due for his United medical, putting an end to a long transfer saga stalled because of contractual fine prints, but certainly not the debate about whether Pogba is worth his transfer fee. Pogba will be United’s main man, occupying a defensive role whilst also providing enough of a goal threat. Another person assured of a place is Mhiktaryan. This leaves one more spot available regardless of the system United lines up with. For now, United will most likely play 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.
I want to guess that Mourinho will prefer to use Jesse Lingard if 4-3-3. He will probably prefer Herrera if 4-2-3-1. Schneiderlin, although not featured much in pre-season, is another option for the 4-2-3-1 system, probably the best option given he is a natural defensive midfielder. With Schneiderlin, Pogba will have a little more freedom to go forward.
When will the mass exodus begin?
When Mourinho arrived at United, many assumed that the man who prides himself on being ruthless will start clearing the current squad to make space for those he truly wants. So far, Mourinho has focused his energy on buying. Bastian Schweinsteiger might make the first high profile exit. Revelations that Mourinho sent him to train with the reserves caused great anger among fans who fell in love with the German captain last year more for his leadership and off the field mentoring of young players than his contributions on the pitch, which were curtailed by injuries and slow adaptation to the league.
Mourinho has been calm so far and has offered to give everyone a fighting chance. But it is only a matter of time before Mourinho starts delivering the bad news. He must deliver the bad news to have a squad that is capable of winning and that can also guarantee its member respectable playing time.
Manchester United’s recent announcement about Pogba’s return only raises the specter of a mass exodus for midfielders. Andreas Pereira, Adnan Januzaj, Schneiderlin and Mata could face the axe, the former two probably on loan.
As far as defensive players go, Marcus Rojo, Tyler Blackett, Cameron Bothwick-Jackson and Paddy McNair are easy targets to sell. Mourinho might be reluctant to sell United’s Academy graduates perhaps to signal his willingness to follow the club’s tradition of promoting youth.
Up front, Mourinho might finally cut Will Keane and James Wilson’s ties to the club. Once considered the next big thing, Keane and Wilson have not lived up to expectations after a series of loans. With a vested interest by all in seeing Marcus Rashford succeed, Keane and Wilson will have to go. Rashford will play backup to Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Read what our friends at Four Four Two Magazine have recommended to Mourinho to shape us his squad.
Valencia is Mourinho’s main man?
Antonio Valencia is having a quiet resurgence under Mourinho. The Ecuadorian winger turned right back struggled for a regular place last season partly due to injuries and partly due to LVG’s tentativeness, but under Mourinho, he is showing signs of his old self. Valencia has been going forward a lot, signaling a marked shift in tactics from Van Gaal, where his attacking duties were secondary. In United’s last three games, Valencia has created four goals, three of which were against Galatasaray.
The New Valencia (or Old, your choice really) is good news and a signal of Mourinho’s intent to return to the Fergie era of masquerading full backs and goals emerging from the flanks. Luke Shaw also makes a lot of forward runs. Shaw was tipped to have a breakthrough season last year after an impressive start, but sat out for most of the season through an injury sustained in United’s Champions League game against PSV.
If both full backs are given the license to run free, United’s midfield will need to serve as cover, as was the case with Spurs last season.