Manchester United produced one of the most enigmatic performances at Old Trafford on Saturday against Newcastle United. The first half was the story of their season – vulnerable in defence, listless in midfield and clueless in attack. However, in the second half, the glimpses of the former giants of English football came out on the pitch. The last quarter of the game was probably the most scintillating football Old Trafford has seen since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Beyond the tactical analysis of the game, the heart of Manchester United was on display as they wrestled back to win the contest. Jose Mourinho praised his side’s effort and commitment after the game. But there were pointers for the Portuguese to learn from and implement in the long run.
Manchester United will struggle to play such football every week but there’s a case for adopting more attacking methods. Mourinho’s side pinned Newcastle back in their own half in the final quarter of the game. The away side had no out-ball and they continued to face waves of attacks. A few tactical tweaks and smart management of the game could lead to more such ferocious football from Mourinho’s side.
The first half and what Manchester United must not do
Manchester United’s defence has been vulnerable and the first half was the embodiment of that vulnerability. Their uncertain defenders made a poor Newcastle side look good in attack. The ease with which the away side carved out the chances to score the two goals in the first ten minutes was unnerving.
The Red Devils boss slotted in Scott McTominay in a back-three and hooked off Eric Bailly. Newcastle could have scored more as the defence never looked settled.
However, the second half proved this Manchester United side are more suited to attacking with abundance than playing percentage football. Newcastle’s lack of quality meant, Mourinho should have taken a chance at Old Trafford from the first minute.
Manchester United showed their attacking potential on Saturday if allowed by their manager to play more freely.
Listen To The Fans, Attack
Manchester United came out of the tunnel a different side after the break and it was evident from the first minute of the second half. Mourinho took off the shackles and men poured forward into the final third. It became pretty clear that Newcastle are going to struggle to keep them at bay for 45 minutes. The sheer weight of their numbers going forward was bound to have an effect.
While in the first half, a man in a crossing position had few options inside the box to aim at, after the break Newcastle defenders had no idea whom to mark. The amount of Manchester United players trying to provide an option in and around the box was creating panic. The Newcastle players were forced into making hurried clearances and misplace passes.
Mourinho took a leaf out of Pep Guardiola’s playbook and compressed the play inside the final third and sustained the pressure on the Newcastle defence. Rafael Benitez’s players had little options to aim at when they were clearing their lines. Feeble attempts to press forward were thwarted because of the number of Manchester United players in the final third. The away side couldn’t commit more men forward as they needed them to mark the Manchester United players camping in and around their box.
On first glance, the second half looked chaotic but there was a method of Manchester United’s madness. They forced Newcastle into their own box with no options to play out the ball by committing seven to eight players in their final third. Mourinho’s decision to press high left Newcastle little option but to defend deep. Guardiola’s Manchester City and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool often do the same on their opponents. The frantic nature of their football contains much more method than it usually seems.
Is Jose Mourinho Ready To Commit To The Madness?
When you hire Mourinho, you are signing up for percentage football in search of trophies. Complaining about his reluctance to play attacking football is like asking for discipline from Donald Trump. You know what you signed up for.
However, Mourinho doesn’t have the defenders to provide the stability in the back that most of his successful sides had. He doesn’t have a John Terry or Lucio or Javier Zanetti like figure in his defence. His style of football has made Chris Smalling look better than what he is and it contributed to their good defensive record last season.
The Portuguese’s apologists have insisted Mourinho would have played more attacking football if he had a better defence at Old Trafford. The problem he is facing that neither his defence looks solid enough to keep sides at bay nor Mourinho is giving his attackers the platform to shine. It has led to Manchester United playing some of the most unimaginative and visionless football this season.
However, the Newcastle game could force the Manchester United manager to change his ways. His side looked scintillating when his attackers were allowed to spread their wings. Anthony Martial showed the glimpses of his world-class talent, Romelu Lukaku, albeit still struggling to score goals, looked a threat out wide and Alexis Sanchez finally got his opportunity to play through the middle.
Juan Mata came on to pull the strings from midfield while Nemanja Matic and Chris Smalling stayed back to thwart any Newcastle counter. Paul Pogba played in a deep role as he carried the ball from the defence in the second half.
What Could Jose Mourinho Learn?
For starters, he definitely should learn attack is the best form of defence for this Manchester United side. It is better to gamble on his talented forward line to score the goals than his suspect defenders to keep sides at bay. There is also a hint of away sides panicking when Manchester United pour men forward.
One of the complaints against Mourinho’s team is that they are easy to defend against. The lack of movement and numbers in the final third make them predictable. The playbook was thrown out of the window in the second half as Newcastle struggled to keep up with the numbers in and around their box.
Pogba’s performance in the second half was also a huge indicator for Mourinho to make a tactical tweak in midfield. Playing a mobile and ball playing players in the deep midfield role is definitely something Mourinho should consider. A modern number six needs to be swift and possess the ability to play incisive balls. Nemanja Matic slows down the pace of transitions, plays safe passes and he looked more at home in the defence. There is a case for recalling Andreas Pereira or even Fred back into the number six role. They are more mobile than Matic and have a better range of passing. However, it’ll depend on whether Manchester United continue to move and stretch the opposition defence around after the international break.
And finally, unleash the talented attackers and give them the freedom to play. Very few would argue if I say a Klopp or Guardiola will get more out of our forward line than Mourinho. The Manchester United manager needs to adapt his style to the needs of the players. Might it be possible that you’ll get most from a squad with no decent back-four but loads of good attackers by committing to attack? Football is not rocket science.
For around 20 minutes on Saturday, Manchester United looked like an irresistible force. Newcastle were not the best of opponents but there’s a template for Mourinho to work with. His side have struggled against the lesser teams such as Brighton, Newcastle, and Huddersfield since last season. Maybe the Manchester United manager should realise that he has the firepower to overwhelm these teams.
Mourinho will resort to type against the better teams and yes, it would be more prudent to do so. Manchester United don’t have the defensive security to play such attacking football against the top sides in the Premier League. I don’t think fans are asking for him to play careless football. However, the Manchester United manager must recognise it is better to play to the strengths of his squad rather than care too much about their weakness.
The question marks over Mourinho’s future at Manchester United have continued to remain. After the international break, they have a tough run of games, which include visits to Chelsea and Manchester City, and a Champions League doubleheader against Juventus.
Mourinho will have the opportunity to show after the break that he is willing to adapt, but the odds of him doing that remain pretty long.