‘Theatre of dreams’ or an arena of nightmares?

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When Manchester United appointed Jose Mourinho as its new manager in the summer, it did not come as a surprise for football fans across the world. After all, the inevitable had happened. The manager, who has always been open about his love for the Red Devils and who supposedly cried after Sir Alex Ferguson overlooked him for the job in 2013, had finally arrived at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’. The script was perfect too — the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ at a club in desperate need of success after seasons of under-performances.

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Yet, the alliance between the two, which saw the bookmakers marking Manchester United as favourite to win the English Premier League title at the start of the season, has not achieved the kind of results it had hoped to. In his first 16 games as United’s manager, Mourinho’s record is worse than that of his predecessors, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes.

Mourinho’s biggest problem, perhaps, lies in his own rigidity — an unwillingness to adapt to circumstances, largely due to his staunch belief in self. His stints across clubs (Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid) suggest that the Portuguese, while being a master of moulding well-oiled teams to execute his plan, can sometimes be caught off-guard when his ‘Plan A’ falters.

Take Chelsea’s Champions League battles with Paris Saint-Germain in the past seasons for example. A team that completely dominated the EPL playing a 4-2-3-1 (Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic forming the midfield pivot) failed to stop a 10-man PSG in 2015. Mourinho failed to adopt an attacking approach after PSG went a man down in the early minutes and instead relied on his first-choice plan — to sit back and counter. This allowed the men from Paris to dominate possession and go through on ‘away goals’.

Mourinho picks (buys) players who fit into his formation. He then trains them to perfection and turns them into a winning combination. Every player in the team knows what he is required to do. The problem that Mourinho is facing at United is he does not have the players required to execute his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation — a strategy that more and more football managers are ditching due to its demand for discipline.

Looking at the past for answers

The good thing about football, though, is that most answers can be had from the past. And if United’s match against Arsenal on November 19 is any indication, Mourinho seems to have found the answer to his team’s recent troubles in two outfits that dominated the EPL in the last two decades — Chelsea, which he managed to Premier League titles in 2004-05 and 2005-06, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United of 2006-09.

Mourinho started the match with a 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3) formation instead of his much-preferred 4-2-3-1. The formation had a fluid front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial (later Wayne Rooney) and Juan Mata constantly interchanging their positions. This was very similar to Ferguson’s front three of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez (sometimes Park Ji-sung).

In the midfield, Mourinho had Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba occupying a more advanced role with Michael Carrick sitting back to protect the defence. This was reminiscent of Mourinho’s Chelsea with Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele.

Ferguson, perhaps, opted for the front three to best utilise the forwards in his team. Neither Rooney nor Tevez were the traditional ‘big’ strikers and were instead forwards who relied on quick feet and pace to score goals. Ronaldo, who started as a winger in a 4-4-2 system, was also showing tendencies to cut inside from the flanks and score goals. All three forwards were versatile. They not only had the ability to play on the flanks but also were capable of tracking back, thereby allowing Ferguson to play a very dynamic front-three, who constantly drew the defenders out of their positions.

Mourinho’s decision, though, could have been dictated by circumstances. Even though he has a big forward in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish striker’s ability has considerably waned since the time they were together before at Inter Milan. (At Inter Milan, Mourinho played the 4-3-3 and Ibrahimovic scored 25 goals). United also lacks quality wingers who can feed the strikers. Mourinho has already tried Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the wide positions, but all have shown a tendency to cut inside and move towards the centre. At Inter Milan, Mourinho had the luxury of his fullbacks, Maxwell and Maicon, helping the strikers in attacks. However, at United, barring the occasional brilliance of Antonio Valencia, none of the fullbacks has lived up to Mourinho’s expectation.

In his first season at Chelsea, Mourinho did not have the same quality of fullbacks (William Gallas/ Wayne Bridge/ Paulo Ferreira) but had natural wingers in Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Damien Duff. That allowed his fullbacks to sit back and concentrate more on the defence.

Mourinho’s insistence on playing the 4-2-3-1 formation also put immense pressure on the wingers. The tactic demands discipline from the wide-men, who not only have to help in defence but also be part of the attack. This is something that players such as Eden Hazard and Ronaldo found difficult to perform. By playing 4-3-3, Mourinho has eased the pressure on his attackers, the extra central midfielder tracking back to support the defence.

Mourinho’s switch to 4-3-3 or 4-1-2-3 is an attempt to get the best out of the world’s most expensive player. Pogba has failed as No. 10 or as a part of the two-man midfield pivot in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Though the Frenchman has the vision and the athleticism to thrive in the role, he has often struggled with the extra defensive responsibilities put on him. This was highlighted at EURO 2016 where Pogba failed to team up with N’Golo Kante to good effect. France’s manager Didier Deschamps, as a result, was forced to add Moussa Sissoko in the team to strike a balance in the midfield.

United’s new formation also allows the team’s best outfield player of this season, Ander Herrera, to have a greater impact. The Spaniard has shone brightly whenever given the role of the attacking midfielder in the double-pivot of the 4-2-3-1 formation. But he has to do the bulk of the defensive duties while partnering Pogba in the role, which stifles Herrera’s attacking prowess.

Mourinho has therefore inverted the midfield pyramid in the last few matches to bring some much-wanted stability, though the late goal United conceded against Arsenal is certainly a blot on an otherwise dominant performance.

To be fair, Mourinho did try playing the formation after his derby defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. But against Watford, he did not have the right players to execute the 4-3-3 to perfection. Rooney teamed up with Pogba as the attacking central midfielders, with Marouane Fellaini sitting back. The Belgian, though physically strong and great in the air, is not a natural defensive midfielder and was found wanting in so many instances. By replacing Fellaini and Rooney with Herrera and Carrick, Mourinho had decoded a formation that best suits his current line-up of players.

Second season wonder

History shows us that Mourinho usually delivers his best in his second season. In his first year (with any team), he gauges his team’s ability, draws up a plan that will work and instils the winning mentality in his players. However, it is in the summer that follows the first season that the Portuguese’s team is at its best.

As the table, ‘Mourinho’s season of success’, suggests, there has never been a second season at a club where the Portuguese hasn’t delivered. The key here is that Mourinho found a formation that worked for each league and then built a team around it.

In his first stint at Chelsea, Mourinho played the 4-3-3 formation to lead the Blues to successive Premier League titles. The 4-1-2-3 formation, with French midfielder Claude Makelele anchoring the midfield, introduced a new line to English football that was still fixated on the 4-4-2. Makelele, positioned between the defenders and midfielders, was an anomaly in English football that preferred having central midfielders alongside each other. It must be said that the formation would have been successful only if the team’s striker was a bully capable of handling two defenders at a time, and in Didier Drogba the manager had the ideal candidate.

At Inter, Mourinho inherited a team that was custom made to defend, with the attacking duties solely on Ibrahimovic and an untamed Mario Balotelli. But the manager decided to sell his prized asset to Barcelona after his first year and used the money to buy world class players, who went on to play a major part in the club’s run to Champions League glory. Most importantly, Mourinho’s second season saw a tactical shift. He switched from the Serie A-winning 4-3-3 (with Ibrahimovic) to the 4-2-3-1 system for the first time in his career — another tactical change to suit the needs of the league.

With Mourinho looking to have finally found a formation that suits the demands of the EPL, the next few transfer windows will prove crucial, for the manager will be recruiting players, who would fit into his new tactics, in the hope of guiding Manchester United back to its glory days.

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