Jose Mourinho has caused many surprises this season. He exiled Bastian Schweinsteiger to the Reserves team for a long time, recalled him to the first team, and then quietly sold the German to Chicago Fire. He criticized journalists who questioned his selection of Wayne Rooney, defended his captain and vowed to play him, only to drop him to the bench and reduce him to a peripheral figure.
He gave Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones a lifeline, first out of necessity, stuck with the partnership and made the two players crucial members of his team. All along, Mourinho has experimented with his formation and personnel, but he in the last few weeks, he has opted for wing-backs, a decision that has brought Ashley Young from the grips of oblivion. He stuck with Fellaini when the fans turned against the midfielder.
All along, Mourinho has experimented with his formation and personnel, but he in the last few weeks, he has opted for wing-backs, a decision that has brought Ashley Young from the grips of oblivion. He stuck with Fellaini when the fans turned against the midfielder.
Recently, he publicly questioned Luke Shaw’s commitment and criticized the Englishman in the most damning terms. Before Shaw, Anthony Martial was on the receiving end of these criticisms. Around the same time of the Shaw criticisms, Mourinho got in a personal fight with journalists who were critical of Paul Pogba.
But none of these surprises surpassed his tactical formation, approach, and personnel selection against Chelsea on April 16th.
Given Mourinho’s track record and aversion to humiliation, many expected him to play defensively against Chelsea. Despite drawing 10 EPL games already this season, with 8 at Old Trafford, a draw at Chelsea was not going to be the worst result, considering that Conte’s men were until that game thought to be champions.
Chelsea had also beaten United twice this season, one game an exercise in humiliation, the other a bitter contest in which Mourinho felt Chelsea benefitted from the referee’s error by sending off Ander Herrera. On the first occasion, Conte outfoxed Mourinho. On the second, it was a much more even contest until the red card, but Mourinho men defended valiantly to avoid another humiliation. On both occasions, Mourinho was made aware that the Italian’s freshman year success not only undermined Mourinho’s Chelsea legacy but also brought an unwelcome spotlight on his last season in charge of the Blues and continued debates about whether the Portuguese’s method was stuck in the past.
United won 2-0 thanks to Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera. Mourinho lined up in a 3-5-2 that featured wing-backs, man-marking (Herrera on Hazard) and high pressure. The biggest surprise was the omission of Zlatan Ibrahimović, United’s leading scorer. Until Chelsea, Zlatan’s absences were due to suspensions and whenever he was on the field, he played until the final whistle.
Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard started up front. Considering Rashford have missed many glaring chances in the five games prior (including one against Chelsea in the FA Cup) and Lingard’s perennial inability to score except at Wembley, it was a bold move from Mourinho, especially when one considers he could have called on Anthony Martial or Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
United pressed up and pressed hard, leaving Chelsea with no room to pass and breathe. Within 7 minutes of each period, United scored their goals and stopped Chelsea from registering a single shot on target.
BBC pundit, Jermaine Jenas called the game a “Mourinho masterclass with a twist.” The twist was United attacking approach to the game.
The win came too late to keep United in the hunt for a title. Any hopes of winning the title were long extinguished, but the win added energy to United’s top four push and reminded many that Mourinho, the meticulous planner, and the big-game winner, still had it and with time could bring back the glory days even as the competition increases.
As always, big wins for United put a spotlight on the club’s progress since the Ferguson era and ignite discussions about what’s next and a range of issues. For many, the win against Chelsea was a foreshadow of how United would and should start conducting business tactically (note that Pogba thrived in a 3-5-2 system at Juventus), the coming of age game for Marcus Rashford and the case for more time in a central role, a showcase of how Ander Herrera’s versatility can be used on the biggest stage, and of course, how what United will do in the transfer window.
Four days later United secured a spot in the Europa League semi-final, the other avenue the club is using to secure a Champions League spot should they end outside of the top 4 and a chance for Mourinho to deliver two trophies in his opening season. It was another big night for Rashford, combining his trademark speed with sumptuous dribbling. In this game, United were reminded again that for all Ibrahimović’s virtues, he slows down the pace of the attack. When tucked centrally after Ibrahimović’s withdrawal, Rashford was more menacing, make the case again that he ought to play central striker. He scored United’s winning goal but still missed a few other clear-cut chances.
United later learned that Ibrahimović tore his ACL. He will be out for a long time, maybe until 2018. Whether Ibrahimović will ever play for United remains to be seen. Although not welcomed, the injury comes as an exciting time for Rashford. With about 9 games to go across all competitions, he has the chance to prove himself and change Mourinho’s mind about any big money acquisition this summer. His confidence is high now and he will want to keep scoring.
Rashford will be United’s main man going forward. There is competition from Anthony Martial, who Mourinho has had a troubled relationship with this season. While Mourinho acknowledges his talent and potential, he doubts his work rate. Martial can play center forward or can now slot in on the left flank in a 4-2-3-1 system and interchange with Rashford constantly. Alternatively, Mourinho can pair them in a 3-5-2 system and maintain a pacy attack line where Pogba can send dangerous long balls.
Rooney has been out with injury too many times this season to develop any consistency. He will relish the opportunity to get a run-in in these last matches to make a case to stay at Old Trafford next season.
Regardless of the calls Mourinho makes beginning with Burnley this weekend, United fans are set up for a riveting season finale, one built on the true United Way: youth, attack, desire and surprise