For all the theories and evidence that back up the fact that Jose Mourinho is primarily a ‘functional’ manager, he is heavily reliant on the improvisation that comes with ‘free spirits’ in the final third of the pitch. Approaching two decades in football management, it is now common knowledge that Jose has his coaching/training designs on the defensive aspect of the game and allows the front four players to ‘improvise‘ in attacking transitions to come up with the goals. Put simply, there is a mandatory obligation to stick to the established script whilst defending but a freedom to create and execute goals.
Sounds easy doesn’t it? Except that it isn’t. It takes more than four players to constantly build and successfully execute attacks for a football team. As such, an efficient Jose Mourinho tactical set-up is always crying out for that one forward player who can perfectly do more than just the one job when it comes to attacking transitions. That player successfully enables the tactical plan to have a balance between solid defending and stingy counter-attacking. Often times, that player is usually the best or at least one of the best in the team with a ‘free-role’ to maximise the freedom to improvise in the final third.
In Jose’s first spell at Chelsea, that player was Arjen Robben who combined pace and goal-scoring to make Chelsea the most dangerous counter-attacking side in the country. At Real Madrid, he had Cristiano Ronaldo for it and was rewarded with a campaign (2011-2012) of brilliant counter-attacking football in which Real Madrid smashed the record of goals scored in the competition, 121, with a goal difference of +89 that would have won the title in just about every European country that year. Jose had Eden Hazard to count on during his second spell at Chelsea with the Belgian’s close control and ability in the final third allowing Chelsea to mount counter-attacks without necessarily sacrificing defensive security.
Notwithstanding their recent efforts in the transfer market, Manchester United have tried and failed to get such a player since Ronaldo departed in the summer of 2009. As such, United have been hamstrung in that department for nearly a decade. That failure almost single-handedly accounted for United’s adopted functionality from 2010. Sober memories will remember that even the 2011 and 2013 title wins were primarily based on the functionality of the team as opposed to the purity of play commonly associated with Sir Alex Ferguson. More than anything, United rode on the sheer will to win of their manager to get through games and indeed seasons. But even then, because of a lack of that ‘X factor’ player, there was inherent and apparent inability for United to, for instance, cope in a situation of seeing out a game with 10 men.
Whilst being 10 men is not a stick to beat a team with, it is no longer the stuff of heroes that a football team wins or at least manages to see out a game with just 10 men. The old temptation to sit back and defend must always be complemented by having a counter-attacking game plan to relieve pressure. At United, there was often nobody to take this responsibility. Even by his high standards of getting 110% from what he had at his disposal, Fergie heavily relied on having 11 bodies on the pitch in the years following the departure of Ronaldo. And so when Rafael got himself sent off in that Champions League semi against Bayern Munich at Old Trafford, United’s chances of progression took a massive dose-dive. Ditto when Luis Nani got sent-off against Real Madrid in 2013.
The hope for Jose Mourinho is that the capture of Alexis Sanchez gives his team an aggression and intensity going forward that will allow United to seamlessly transition from defending to attacking without compromising the defensive security he relishes. Adding a third or fourth world-class player to his starting XI ought to give him the confidence to ‘let the horses run’ more often than not with the confidence that United’s numbers up top will improve. Because whereas United rank third on the goal-scoring charts, the team shoots far less than their top six rivals. Indeed, the weekend fixture at Burnley saw United register just two shots on target, a statistic that is reminiscent of the dark grey days of Louis van Gaal.
In that respect, Alexis Sanchez, it is hopped, will be able to make United much more aggressive up top given his relentless application. It is now up to Jose to make use of him in a way that further enhances his ideas on how to make Manchester United Champions again.