As another false dawn fizzles out over the Etihad, José Mourinho dips in to his well-worn book of excuses once again. City had three home games last week, we had three away games. We were tired, mentally and physically. As always, José’s argument has some truth to it, but as always, it doesn’t address the absolute gulf in class between Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and his own Manchester United.
The gulf in class of the teams as a whole is greater than the gulf in class, position by position, player by player. Are City, man-for-man, better than United? Yes. But are they that muchbetter? After 12 Premier League games, City have scored 16 more goals and conceded 16 fewer goals than United. Is our squad worse than City’s to the tune of a 32 goal difference in 12 games? No. Liverpool are ten points and 19 goal difference ahead of us, and few would argue that our squad is stronger than theirs. And if you accept the fact that the difference doesn’t lie in the quality of players at our disposal, then you have to accept that the difference lies in tactics and/or motivation.
Mourinho is set in his ways. Let’s take the big target man up front. Hasn’t modern football moved on? Look at City’s front line, look at Liverpool’s, Barcelona’s, Juve’s. There’s pace, fluidity, movement. The absence of Lukaku meant we had to go to that more fluid style ourselves, and suddenly, we started looking like a team again. The movement came back, Martial regained his form, Alexis started sparking. Mata wound back the clock and with the energetic Fred provided the link up play between midfield and attack we’d been so badly missing. Almost by accident – through resting Lukaku when he was “tired”, and then due to his injury, José had stumbled upon what looked to the fans to be a winning formula. Even with the not-quite-world-class Rashford up front. As a fan, you felt relieved. You felt like saying “there you go José, now do you see? This is the way we need to be going.”
But as quickly as the new United seemed to have emerged, it became clear that José hadn’t bought in to it. Against Juvé, Mata was dropped. Fred was dropped. We still had enough fluidity up front to sneak a win, but you kind of knew that it was the beginning of another long spell on the bench for these busy, intelligent, link up players. Against City, Mourinho’s eyes were always first on shoring up our woeful defence with the likes of the out-of-form Matic, and the brawn of Fellaini. He chooses the steady Lingard over the mercurial Alexis. It’s tired old tactics. When we go 2-0 down, you think maybe, just maybe, he’ll take off Matic and go to an attacking 4-2-3-1, but he sacrifices Lingard and reverts to the big target man. More tired old tactics.
At 2-1, City looked jittery. It was time to go for the jugular. Maybe he’ll take off Matic now? Or even go to 3 at the back and really go for it? Nope. Off comes Herrera, who admittedly wasn’t having his best game, but can make things happen, and off comes Rashford, a like-for-like with Alexis. We were fully back to the formula that yielded us nothing at the start of the season: static and predictable, and we never even looked like scoring.
The scariest thing of all for me was José’s answer to a question in the press conference about whether we’d missed Pogba. He kind of conceded we had, but not because Pogba is arguably the best midfield player in the world. No. He complained that Pogba’s injury had meant Fellaini had to play 90 minutes, so he couldn’t bring old Mophead off the bench when he needed to.
“I can just imagine, when the result was 2-1, to bring a fresh Fellaini to the pitch, I think they would be in big, big trouble” lamented the boss.
Zlatan, Fellaini and Lukaku: Since José arrived at Old Trafford, these big guys have been the focal point of his teams and his tactics. Modern football has long since learned how to snuff out the “get it up to the big man” game, but José just keeps going down that same old road and expecting a different result, like Homer Simpson on the electric wire trying to retrieve his beer can. The fact is that José is not learning. The arrogance that once used to infuse his teams with confidence now stands in the way of him admitting that the game has moved on around him. He’s playing piggy-in-the-middle, with City tiki-taka’ing their way around him on the pitch, and Pep, Poch and Klopp doing managerial tiki-taka around him in the tactics room.