Football is playing with Jose Mourinho, wrote Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian. In the wake of Chelsea’s thunderous 96th-minute equaliser and subsequent touchline scuffle, it was easy for a moment to forget about how the match had unfolded in surprisingly entertaining fashion. Maurizio Sarri’s unbeaten entertainers vs Mourinho’s parked bus, Jose’s latest return to Stamford Bridge, United in crisis: headline heaven.
Manchester United showed glimpses of attacking intensity in the second half that Chelsea simply couldn’t deal with. The question Wilson raised in his post-match analysis was why had it taken so long to unleash the potential? Defensive impermeability was supposed to be Mourinho’s hallmark, but the defence has been woefully insecure. Anthony Martial in full flow, however, is a sight to behold, as his two goals showed. Perhaps the answer to United’s short-term on-pitch issues is not to set up shop to defend, but do the exact opposite.
Errors on the ball
Much has been written about how central Paul Pogba is to United’s play. The World Cup winner has found life frustrating with his concentration and motivation levels fluctuating enormously. This is most clearly demonstrated by his average of 2.8 unsuccessful touches per 90 minutes. Marcus Rashford is way out in front with five, but there are two mitigating circumstances for that.
Firstly, his position and style of play. As a winger, his job revolves around taking opposition players on directly. This of course, in turn, means he has more opportunities to lose possession. He also runs with the ball at a greater pace than Pogba, which leaves him more susceptible to misplaced touches.
Secondly, he has played far fewer minutes in the league. Pogba is as close to undroppable as it gets in the changeable world of Mourinho’s United, despite their fractious relationship. His 784 minutes dwarves Rashford’s 307, so the sample pool for statistics is slightly less reliable. Interestingly, though, Rashford has only been dispossessed once according to WhoScored, compared to 24 times in Pogba’s case.
Why has Pogba been making so many mistakes on the ball? The responsibility of often being the primary playmaker in midfield is a burden in itself. The system in which he has been asked to play also allows fewer options in front of him. With Nemanja Matic, Marouane Fellaini or Fred alongside him, there hasn’t been an obvious ballplayer to share the load. As a result, he attempts to carry the ball longer or shield it more often under pressure.
Width and creativity
Anthony Martial’s electric pace and confidence after halftime was exemplified by his beaming grin as he hugged Mourinho. In United’s first six league matches, he accumulated just over a whole game’s worth of minutes without scoring. Since then, he has started three in a row and scored three. He has completed seven successful dribbles at 1.8 on average per 90 minutes, with only Pogba registering more.
Juan Mata is by far the most efficient dribbler of attacking players with almost 73% of his dribbles ending successfully. His more patient style of play is a useful foil for the more direct, faster running on the ball of his wingers. Compared to Alexis Sanchez’ 1.5 unsuccessful dribbles per 90 minutes, Mata’s possession helps bring others into the game more.
With Rashford on the other wing, United had their two most prolific dribblers on the pitch with a license to run. They have notched up the two highest average attempted dribbles per 90 minutes, with seven combined. The success rate is telling though. Martial completes almost half of his dribbles, whereas Rashford is successful in less than 20% of his.
Their different styles on the ball partly explain this disparity. Rashford is more powerful and direct, Martial relies more on close control. In the 2-2 draw with Chelsea, 46% of United’s play came down Martial’s left flank as opposed to just 26% down Rashford’s right. This showed a recognition of how best to threaten on the day given Martial’s confidence. Unleash them both in their own way, however, and the results are devastating.
Passes and positioning
Of United’s 385 total passes, 15% were long, compared to just 5% of Chelsea’s overall total of 636. The increased license to break forward after halftime boosted his percentage. Of course, it is not just a simple as lumping a long ball out wide and letting the wingers get on with it. Juan Mata returned to his natural role as an advanced number 10 and had a major part in the improved performance.
His average position on the pitch was very close to Romelu Lukaku up front as demonstrated on the graphic below. Lukaku’s number nine and Mata’s number eight are both central. The Belgian has looked isolated this season when playing further from his teammates.
Meanwhile, for Chelsea, Morata’s 29 was closer to Willian, which in turn left more space on Martial’s flank. The Frenchman’s number 11 is clearly so much wider than Chelsea’s narrow shape. With the extra space and encouragement to use the ball, he was at his best.
Whichever camp one lies in regarding the causes for United’s overall lethargic, uninspiring style this season, the fact remains the tools are there for a devastating attacking outfit. When Martial and Rashford play out wide with Mata in the middle, United look dangerous. Jonathan Wilson was right to highlight the advantages of playing to your strengths. The defence is clearly not it, so perhaps Mourinho should concentrate on unleashing his forwards more.