FEBRUARY 3 ― Jose Mourinho appears to be stuck.
He appears to be stuck between his defensive, cautious, counter-attacking instincts and the more expansive, exciting style of play the rest of the world prefers to see.
That, at least, appeared to be the case from his Manchester United team’s dreadful capitulation against Tottenham on Wednesday night, when Mourinho’s men were awfully flattered by the 2-0 scoreline after delivering a chaotic performance.
Mourinho, of course, is renowned for his ultra-defensive tactics ― when history reviews his career a couple of decades from now, he will be seen as synonymous with “parking the bus” in the same way that his contemporary Pep Guardiola will be remembered for “tiki-taka.”
There is a great deal of over-simplification in those descriptions: Guardiola does not like the phrase “tiki-taka” and his teams have a much better defensive record than he is generally given credit for, while Mourinho has presided over some attacking teams such as the Real Madrid 2011/12 title-winning side which scored a record 121 goals.
However, the generalisation is true: Guardiola tries to win games by outscoring his opponents with free-flowing football based on control of possession, while Mourinho’s primary focus is ensuring his defence is strong.
At least, it usually is. On Wednesday night at Wembley, however, Mourinho made a major departure from his normal strategy by selecting an exceptionally attacking line-up to face Tottenham, with new signing Alexis Sanchez, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku all starting.
The intention was for the team to adopt a 4-2-3-1 formation, similar to the style Mourinho employed during that goal-laden season with Madrid six years ago.
The biggest problem, however, is that Pogba is just not suited to playing as one of two central midfielders in that kind of set-up, because he just does not do enough defending. Rather than sitting next to Nemanja Matic to control the centre of the pitch, Pogba wants to be getting forward, either making attacking runs into the box or linking up with his striker and wingers in the final third.
At Wembley, Pogba did not stick to the “double pivot” role he was supposed to be filling, instead wandering 15 or 20 yards further upfield, and the situation was made worse by the lack of natural defensive instincts of wide men Sanchez and Martial, who did a poor job of tracking back to cover Tottenham’s full-backs.
As a result, the 4-2-3-1 formation morphed involuntarily into something more resembling a 4-1-4-1, with Matic forced to hold the fort in midfield all by himself. Indeed, at times Matic was placed under so much pressure that he felt compelled to retreat deeper and deeper until he practically became a third centre back, leaving United looking more like a 5-0-5 shape and completely lacking in midfield presence.
Mourinho did rather belatedly recognise the problem, replacing Lingard and Martial with Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata after an hour, only to make an embarrassing about-turn just seven minutes later by taking off Fellaini and introducing Ander Herrera, a much more naturally defensive midfielder.
By then, though, it was too late. The damage had been done in the first half, especially in the very first seconds of the game when a comically poor piece of defending allowed Christian Eriksen to give Tottenham the lead after just 11 seconds.
That woeful start set the tone for the rest of the game for United, and perhaps it should just be taken in isolation as a very bad night at the office rather than a symptom of a bigger problem.
Nevertheless, Mourinho does have to decide which direction he wants the team to follow, and what we saw on Wednesday was not it. Pogba, in my view, should be playing as the central player in the “3” of the 4-2-3-1, the attacking central midfielder, rather than in the double-pivot alongside Matic, and the wingers must be given more disciplined defensive roles.
It’s strange to be talking about a lack of defensive discipline in the context of Mourinho, and I wonder whether all the praise handed out to Guardiola has started to affect him.
It can’t be easy for Mourinho, sitting on the red side of his city, hearing day after day of tributes and commendations flowing towards his near neighbour Guardiola for his exciting and attractive football, while simultaneously finding himself on the receiving end of a non-stop flood of criticism that his own team is horrendously boring.
Perhaps something has snapped inside Mourinho’s head and made him think, “Ok, I can play attacking football as well. Let me show you!”
If that’s the case, however, it backfired horribly on Wednesday night and should become a short-lived experiment which is consigned to the rubbish bin.
At this stage of the season, with the Champions League and a top-four Premier League finish still to play for, Mourinho cannot afford to turn against his instincts.
If there are many more performances like they one they delivered on Wednesday, United’s season will quickly disintegrate.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.