Jose Mourinho’s clinical streak has helped propel him from translator to manager of some of the world’s biggest clubs. His analytical brain is apparent whenever he gets his tactics very right, and he can deploy the same tactics in an interview.
Having stated last week that he would not have bought the footballers Manchester United bought or sold ones they sold, he was pressed by his questioner, Gary Lineker, for examples. The answer came with seemingly prepared precision.
“I would have never have sold Angel Di Maria, Chicharito [Javier Hernandez] and Danny Welbeck,” Mourinho said. “Never. No chance.”
As with many of the Portuguese’s comments, those can be taken on two levels. Di Maria is both a player he took to Real Madrid and a winger who offers the pace and width that many of United’s finest teams have possessed. Hernandez was a catalyst for many a comeback, a striker with the invaluable knack of scoring against high-calibre opponents. Welbeck was one of their own, a versatile local admired for his attitude and athleticism.
There are reasons to believe United were wrong to part company with each. Yet there was also the subtext: Louis van Gaal let all of them leave, and therefore, Mourinho is paying the price for his predecessor’s mistakes. He is performing a balancing act, implying why his is such a big task but leaving his audience to join the dots.
Mourinho’s references tend to be veiled. He never names his predecessor in criticisms. His rare mentions of the Dutchman come with exaggerated politeness, given that he normally refers to a man who was a mentor in their Barcelona days as “Mr. Van Gaal.” But he serves as a repudiation of an old ally.
Mourinho’s style of play is different. So is his every decision.
He brought in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who said he rejected a move to Van Gaal’s United. Men associated with a discredited regime seemed discriminated against. Mourinho exiled Bastian Schweinsteiger, a Van Gaal disciple from their time at Bayern Munich from the first-team picture altogether. He has already offloaded two Van Gaal recruits, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay, after granting them a combined total of just 31 minutes of Premier League football. Arguably, he has afforded two of the 65-year-old’s better buys, Daley Blind and Anthony Martial, too few chances. When Blind (a fixture at centre-back last season) is chosen, it tends to be at left-back.
This is part of a broader theme. Those who arrived under Van Gaal are invariably “rebranded” by Mourinho. Marcos Rojo played last season as a left-back, but his best form for Mourinho has been in the middle of defence. Van Gaal rarely trusted Ander Herrera in a deeper berth, while Mourinho has often selected the Spaniard as his defensive midfielder.
These roles are different because Mourinho is seemingly intent on undoing Van Gaal’s work. That the sold Schneiderlin and Depay have shown signs of returning to their pre-United form at their new clubs, Everton and Lyon, is a sign that they needed to get Van Gaal out of their system. So did United. He is being removed from their blueprint. Zonal marking has replaced man for man, and gone too is the pointless passing of Van Gaal’s sideways — sterile domination proscribed, according to his replacement.
Mourinho has taken it further, indicating that every player’s duties have changed. “Everything was made behind,” he said in December. “We now play between the lines. We look forward. Our defensive line is very high.” It is revolution, he suggests, not evolution. Van Gaal’s United were undeniably defensive. Mourinho likes to project the idea that his side are more progressive, a team in the club’s truest traditions.
United currently average 17.1 shots per game, the second most in the division, whereas they ranked 15th with 11.3 last year, but the most significant numbers damage his case. United are on course to score 59 league goals, 10 more than last season but fewer than any of their other teams in the Premier League era. It is a reason that his policy of blame transference, partly political and partly justified, has such significance.
Mourinho’s United are in fifth, the position in which Van Gaal’s side finished. He has won a domestic cup, but so did the sacked Van Gaal. He wants this season to feel like the start of something — not more of the same pattern of low-scoring, expensive underachievement — and so it suits his purposes to emphasise (some would say exaggerate) the problems he was bequeathed. Yet it’s also legitimate to argue that he should have inherited some of the players United discarded and that those they kept needed reprogramming.
Last week, Mourinho spoke of coming to a “sad club,” and Van Gaal’s dictatorial dullness felt draining. The lower the United Mourinho took over seemed, the more time he will be afforded and the more credit if he engineers a turnaround.
Whereas Van Gaal portrayed himself as a philosopher and sometimes appeared in a world of his own, Mourinho indulges in realpolitik and realises that everything can be a reaction against the past. It certainly was when he portrayed himself as the antithesis of predecessors such as Claudio Ranieri and Rafa Benitez, the two men he replaced at Chelsea.
If Mourinho can prove himself to truly be the “anti-Van Gaal,” it would be a crowd-pleasing measure. In the meantime, suggesting he is his opposite is a smart move, but then again, cunning has long been a key element of his managerial armoury.
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