It seems like a long time ago, but only back in May of 2015, Jose Mourinho looked set for a sustained period of dominance at Chelsea. His team had won the league comfortably, advanced to the semi-finals of the Champions League, and Mourinho was talking about a long career ahead at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea exhibited all of the classic Mourinho traits; impeccable defensive organization, quick, aggressive attacking, and a ruthless mindset to close out games and indeed, an entire season.
Not only a year and a half later, and Mourinho has been sacked by Chelsea, hired by Manchester United, and looks a shadow of his former self. How did it come to this?
A lot has been made of Mourinho’s harsh form of man-management; calling players out publicly and appearing to throw them under the bus for performances while side-stepping any blame for himself, creating the assumption players do not want to play for him.
There may be some truth in that, but if Mourinho’s tactical approach was working as it should be, then there would be no need to call players out in the first place.
Mourinho’s strength has been his ability not only to create an organized defensive unit, but finding an effective and balanced attacking approach. At Porto, Nuno Valente and Paolo Ferreira were excellent attacking fullbacks with defensive limitations, so were allowed to play their attacking role with the benefit of the midfield 3 playing as mainly defensive players while Deco and the two strikers were free to attack. At Chelsea, Makélélé was a one man defensive buffer that allowed Frank Lampard to not only create goals for his teammates, but score plenty for himself. At Inter, the midfield 2 of Cambiasso and Zanetti provided balance to the attacking ability of Wesley Sneijder, Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o. At Madrid, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira allowed the likes of Ozil and Ronaldo the freedom to wreak havoc on the opposition, especially in the counter-attack. All throughout Mourinho’s career there has been a very clear balance of defensive muscle, at least one midfield player who can control the tempo with his passing, a designated playmaker, and pace on the outside.
As we have seen for over a decade, this is a good formula for success. It is not revolutionary by any means, but when all these elements work together in unison, the team becomes nigh-unbeatable.
The problem for Mourinho currently at United is that he has lost this balance, particularly in the midfield. Much of the blame for United’s lackluster attacking has fallen on the shoulders of Wayne Rooney, but he is only part of a bigger problem.
In the continuing quest to figure out what role Fellaini actually thrives in, Mourinho has used him as his midfield destroyer. On the surface this would seem to make sense. Fellaini is a tall, powerful player who is not shy with his physicality. However, he does not possess near the game-reading ability of a Makélélé, Zanetti, Khedira, or Matic. While a destroyer is mainly expected to do the dirty work of defending his center-backs while the other midfielders create and control tempo, the role still requires a very nuanced understanding of the game that I am not convinced Fellaini possesses. He may perform the role well enough, but well enough does not often create title winning teams.
In the role alongside Fellaini, which would usually be a technical player able to control his team’s movements with his passing, is Paul Pogba. The Frenchman’s ability is undeniable; his dribbling ability combined with his technical skillset and strength makes him a very rare breed of midfield player who can single-handedly run games when he is at his best. The problem, however, is that he is not yet able to reach that level on a weekly basis. He does not have the vision or spatial awareness to control a game’s tempo with his passing or create chances out of thin-air like other midfielders for Mourinho have done in this role. He may still reach this level, but at the moment, his skillset still requires another midfielder to fulfill that role to allow him a more box-to-box position. When that other player is currently Wayne Rooney, you can understand why United’s attack often looks sluggish and predictable.
For United to become a true Mourinho team, adjustments must be made to the midfield. An attacking system that requires lightning-fast decision making and technical precision requires a specific set of players with a specific set of skills that are currently missing in the regular starting XI (though not missing from the team). If Mourinho does not sort out the lethargy in his team’s play, he could be looking at another short tenure.