After a difficult start to life as Manchester United manager, Jose Mourinho has guided his side to six straight league wins and closed the gap on his rivals at the top of the Premier League table. The two most recent wins, against Middlesbrough and West Ham, were hard-fought encounters spaced just 48 hours apart. Mourinho changed the course of events in both matches with his interventions from the touchline, making substitutions and tactical changes to turn things in United’s favour. He’s still the same brilliant coach he always was.
If truth be told, Mourinho has demonstrated his coaching ability throughout his tenure at Manchester United. His management of Wayne Rooney, slowly relieving United of their dependence on the club captain, was done seamlessly and professionally. Mourinho has also revived the fortunes of Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones, who have produced a level of performance that many would have thought impossible at the start of the season. Not only has Mourinho spent wisely to improve his team, he’s taken the players he already had and made them better, individually and collectively.
So it is no surprise that during the busiest period the season, when his team needed him the most, Mourinho displayed one of his greatest managerial skills. Mourinho’s in-game management is world class, his ability to change the shape of his team or react to situations during a match is what makes him a great coach. It is what separates the very best from all the other coaches at the top of the profession.
Against Middlesbrough, Manchester United were in control of the game and dominating ball possession, creating all the chances and pushing hard to win the match, but it was Boro that took the lead. Mourinho’s response was gutsy and it was bold, fully in keeping with Manchester United tradition. He took off Chris Smalling and replaced him with Marcus Rashford. Apart from the obvious attacking intention behind substituting a defender for a striker, Mourinho’s intervention changed the shape of his team and the course of the match.
With the knowledge that most of the remaining twenty minutes would be played in Middlesbrough’s half, Mourinho made alterations and took risks to ensure his team had the right advantages where they needed them. By pitting Eric Bailly against Alvaro Negredo in a one vs one duel at the back, Mourinho knew he could gain a two vs one advantage further up the pitch. At first, it was on the left, where Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial dovetailed well to threaten the Boro backline with pace and trickery. When that didn’t work, focus shifted to more central areas. As the minutes wore on, United went a little more direct and Martial moved into a central position to play off Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With two defenders marshalling the big Swede, as they had been all afternoon, Martial was able to sneak in to equalise. When it came to the winning goal, United simply had too many attacking options for a tired Boro to cope and Paul Pogba was left unmarked as he headed home the winner. Somehow, against the organisation and discipline of Middlesbrough’s low defensive block, Mourinho had been able to fashion his own advantages.
But the true test of Mourinho’s brilliance would come just two days later at the London Stadium.
After Sofiane Feghouli’s red card reduced West Ham to just ten players, Mourinho’s adaptation at half-time completely changed the dynamic of the football match and gave Manchester United a path to victory that had seemed unlikely in the first half – despite their numerical advantage.
Mourinho’s decision making was reminiscent of another match in which he had the final say. A match that, ironically enough, also involved Manchester United. In 2013, his Real Madrid side visited Old Trafford in the Champions League, and it was Mourinho’s reaction to another controversial red card that influenced proceedings that night as well.
While 75,000 supporters raged at the decision to send Nani off, and Ryan Giggs and Sir Alex Ferguson turned to the crowd to ask for their help in getting the team over the line, Mourinho stood on the touchline and schemed. Amidst the blood and thunder, the fury and the anguish, Mourinho remained cold and calculated. Three minutes later he made the substitution that would win his side the game.
Up to that point, United had restricted Real Madrid’s offensive strengths by nullifying Xabi Alonso’s influence on the game in central midfield through the disciplined defensive work of Danny Welbeck. With Nani dismissed from United’s left-hand side, Mourinho introduced Luka Modric and moved Sami Khedira out to the right to create an attacking overload. Ferguson responded by moving Welbeck to the left to cover it and to create two banks of four as they took up their defensive positions. Modric and Alonso were suddenly free to dictate the tempo of the game and Madrid took control, scoring twice to knock Manchester United out of Europe. Mourinho’s tactical intelligence allows him to identify the advantages he needs and he knows just how to adapt a football match to create those advantages for his team. A mid-game mastermind.
So when Feghouli was sent off on Monday evening, it was hardly surprising that Mourinho had all the answers.
At half-time, he removed Matteo Darmian, moved Rojo to left-back and dropped Michael Carrick in as an auxiliary central defender in order to accommodate the arrival of Juan Mata. In the first-half, it was noticeable how often Carrick received the ball near to the half-way line, so it made sense to have him continue that phase of play as a centre-back and introduce an additional attacking threat further up the pitch. As United gained further control of the match, Marcus Rashford was brought on to inject more pace into the attack and give United more width in offensive areas. Manchester United took the lead five minutes after Rashford replaced Jesse Lingard, with the teenage forward crossing for Mata to score. A goal scored on the pitch but created on the touchline.
As Manchester United have put together their recent winning run, all eyes have been on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and the rest of the first team squad. Packed with talented footballers and driven individuals, they have one of the most desirable groups of players in Europe. Yet for all the talent out on the pitch, it is in the dugout where United have the edge. Jose Mourinho is one of the best coaches on the planet, and he’s started to flex his managerial muscles once again.