José Mourinho can mould an exciting, attacking Manchester United side
Mourinho’s reputation for defensive football is unfair and the players already at Old Trafford will give him the opportunity to demonstrate that
By Michael Cox
José Mourinho is likely to use a 4-2-3-1 formation at Manchester United but Juan Mata may not fit into his plans. Photograph: John Walton/PA
When it comes to football managers, first impressions are extremely important. José Mourinho’s “special one” assertion in his first press conference as a Premier League manager became his default nickname, and his subsequent defensive approach with Chelsea is considered his default footballing philosophy. In reality, things are much more complex.
Mourinho’s reputation as a purely defensive manager is unjust and based largely upon the questionable notion that attractive football must involve long spells of possession. Even his most defensive sides, the Champions League-winning Porto team of 2003-04 and the Chelsea side who recorded back-to-back Premier League titles in the mid-2000s, were capable of thrillingly direct counterattacking football which produced wonderful goals, not to mention winning plenty of trophies.
Since then, Mourinho has become more adventurous. His Internazionale treble winners of 2009-10 are remembered for their bus-parking exercise at the Camp Nou, but in the first leg they brought their Serie A game – scintillating attacking football – to outplay Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Mourinho’s Real Madrid, meanwhile, outscored Barça in two of his three La Liga campaigns, and hisChelsea title winners of 2014-15 showcased rapid combination play in the final third, particularly before Christmas.
Generally, Mourinho’s sides play perfectly exciting football throughout the majority of a season, but in big matches – particularly in Europe, and towards the end of a campaign – become more cautious. This does not differ significantly from Sir Alex Ferguson’s approach during the final decade of his tenure at Old Trafford, when United’s purposeful, high-intensity football would give way to reactive, counterattacking displays against elite opposition.
If United supporters accepted that approach, Mourinho’s blueprint should not be problematic.
Where his first Chelsea side were packed with physical midfielders and functional attackers, he has recently accommodated more technical, creative footballers. He has not determinedly searched for a Claude Makelele figure, using the deep‑lying playmaker Xabi Alonso at Real Madrid. The creative but positionally undisciplined Cesc Fàbregas played a deep midfield role in his second spell with Chelsea – albeit rarely in big games – and Mourinho also turned Wesley Sneijder and Mesut Özil into world-class No10s by freeing them from defensive responsibilities. The same applies out wide: Mourinho’s most recent left wingers have been Cristiano Ronaldo and Eden Hazard, who have pinned the opposition right-back rather than tracking them.
Mourinho generally trains his players in two separate formations. Initially he liked the option of a diamond midfield, but with Real Madrid and Chelsea has favoured 4-2-3-1, with 4-3-3 the plan B, and that will be his probable approach at Old Trafford.
Manchester United had the joint-best defensive record in the Premier League in 2015‑16, and having worked under Louis van Gaal at Barcelona, Mourinho will understand exactly how United’s players have been drilled. However, he will unquestionably utilise different defenders to Van Gaal.
It is difficult to imagine Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young playing full-back: the injured Luke Shaw should become a regular, and Matteo Darmian needs to improve his positional sense but could become one of Mourinho’s trusted, disciplined full-backs, like Paulo Ferreira or álvaro Arbeloa. Daley Blind is not a Mourinho centre-back, and will presumably return to midfield.
The use of Blind or Bastian Schweinsteiger would necessitate a combative, mobile midfield partner, in the role Michael Essien and Sami Khedira have previously played under Mourinho. Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera could be perfect. The FA Cup final winner Jesse Lingard, meanwhile, is the type of hard‑working, versatile squad member Mourinho will use for specific, individual tactical reasons against dangerous individuals.
Wayne Rooney may play a permanent midfield role, but Juan Mata lacks the dynamism of Mourinho favourites Sneijder and Özil and having been discarded once by the Portuguese coach at Chelsea, will presumably be considering his options.
Up front, meanwhile, Mourinho should be licking his lips. Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay are hugely talented, dynamic youngsters who could be converted into devastatingly effective wide forwards, while Marcus Rashford’s ability to run the channels and link with onrushing midfielders makes him a promising lone striker.
It is not difficult to assemble a Mourinho-style starting XI from United’s current squad, and it is a surprisingly exciting side – and that’s without considering the assortment of new signings he has been promised. His off-field approach will, as ever, court controversy. Tactically, however, Mourinho and United appear a perfect fit.