José Mourinho is renowned for getting things right in his second season at clubs. He lays the foundation, engraves what he’s about into the club, identifies cracks & weaknesses over the course of his debut season, and signs the necessary personnel to patch it up. He’s famously won the league in his 2nd season every year and Manchester United certainly look capable of that. Manchester United have started the 2017-18 campaign impressively; going into this October International break winning six of their opening seven fixtures with a healthy goal difference of 19 (21 scored, 2 conceded), joint top with Manchester City and look ahead to Liverpool away on October the 14th.
So, what are the reasons behind this strong start?
BETTER AT BREAKING DOWN DEEP BLOCKS
Having registered four 4-0 victories already this season against West Ham, Swansea, Everton & Crystal Palace, United fans will definitely feel some relief, as these were the type of fixtures in which they struggled in last campaign. In fact, three of those four mentioned sides were part of the ten draw tally at Old Trafford last season; an unthinkable number of home stalemates for a title contender.
United had their fair share of luckless days in front of goal last season, but it couldn’t have been all misfortune. A lot of the time they just simply weren’t efficient enough in their attempts to choreograph a way through defensive low blocks and create frequent, high quality chances. This added to the anxiousness in games of this profile, with an ‘Oh no, not again’ feel from the fans right throughout the team, which resulted in a high volume of panic shots; stinging the palms of keepers, hitting the woodworks, finding row Z from all distances and angles; half deceiving fans into thinking it was all bad luck, when in truth, a lot of the “chances” simply weren’t high quality.
(As you can see from the above image, United had the least xG (expected goals) out of all the top 6, and not a great deal more than Claude Puel’s Southampton. So much for the unluckiest team in the league) [Credit: 11tegen11]
Lukaku has already missed two high probability scoring chances directly in front of goal against Everton and Crystal Palace so far this season, but avoids the criticism Zlatan got, who to this day, large sections of United fans still blame for finishing 6th or not scoring enough goals.
So, what’s the difference? Simple answer. Lukaku’s misses aren’t as significant because there are other high quality chances being repeatedly created and put away by either himself or his teammates.
HOW ARE THEY CREATING & SCORING MORE GOALS AGAINST DEEP BLOCKS?
José is never going to walk into a club and install full flowing Juego de Posicion, his coaching capacity in regards to final third spacing/positional play leaves a bit to be desired. He’s a manager known for organisation, compactness, quick transitions, countering/nullifying transparent styles of opponents in big games, and being efficiently deadly in attack. However, how does this consistently work against sides that are content with camping 5-8 players in their box? How can you counter a team that doesn’t attack? It frustrated José on numerous occasions, the irony was, he was getting out-Mourinho’d in a sense.
But the 54 year old Portuguese manager had to work out something to solve what proved his biggest issue last season, and his conclusion seems pretty simplistic. In a short answer; width & crosses to a target man. To be fair, that does undersell it, as it is somewhat calculated from what I’ve seen; United have a tendency to overload the right hand side of the pitch, the usual suspects of Lukaku, Mkhitaryan, Mata, Valencia, Pogba/Fellaini and Matić all congregating each other within close proximity in right/central areas with either Rashford or Martial occasionally squeezing infield, manipulating the defensive shape of the opposition into a lopsided configuration, to then execute that switch to the neglected left wing where United possess their best crossers; either Ashley Young or Daley Blind from left full back. The widest player on the left (as mentioned, usually the left back) often finds himself in acres of space due to the overload on the right, and are able to isolate their opposing full-back and easily maneuver themselves into a quality crossing situation to deliver towards Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba/Maroune Fellani, and/or others in support. It’s like a positional diversion to free the crosser, and with all of these players who are likely to be in the middle being well over six foot with an abundance of physical strength, so long as the crossing locations and deliveries are of high quality, it’s a pretty sustainable tactic.
Is this their only method of scoring? Of course not. They have a number quality players in the final third to try and mix it up in a bid to produce individual magic and force a breakthrough, but I’d say this is José’s primary formula.
Here are a couple of examples of it against Crystal Palace last weekend:
I compiled and tweeted some other examples of this against Leicester earlier this season also:
Simple yet effective build up from Utd v Leic in the first half through Pogba. Overload the right, switch to the left. La Pausa principles. pic.twitter.com/CF9Xb6HgaH
— Adroit Cadet (@Adroit_Cadet) September 3, 2017
It also sheds a light on as to why José Mourinho was keen on bringing Ivan Perišić to the club; the Croatian wide-man would’ve excelled in this structure as one of the best, two footed crossers in Europe. Personally, I felt he would’ve got 7+ assists directly from crosses against low-blocks alone in this system.
WHY DIDN’T THEY IMPLEMENT THIS AGAINST DEEP BLOCKS LAST SEASON WITH ZLATAN?
Zlatan’s height often deceives. Yes he’s dangerous in the air, but the fact of the matter is, he’s very much a false 9. He likes to drop deep & participate in build up, which is all fine and well against certain opponents, but against deep blocks, it can be a detrimental trait. A deep defensive line love strikers dropping off, they love seeing the picture in front of them, the only realistic threat posed is a shot from distance when this happens, but given the defensive congestion inside the box, the probability of the shot being blocked is extremely high and comfortable for the defending side, and the more blocks you allow defenders to make, the more adrenaline and confidence they gain. The truth is, Zlatan was most dangerous when he was as advanced as possible; making himself a nuisance, wrestling & bullying centre halves. Ideally, United needed a striker that had Zlatan’s physical presence & aerial prowess, along with the penetrating movement of Marcus Rashford. In Romelu Lukaku, they signed this.
Ander Herrera can count himself a bit unlucky to be a benchwarmer this season, as he was one of the stand-out performers for United last campaign. He counter-pressed, covered a lot of ground, and kept it simple better than most. Having said all of that, there’s no denying Nemanja Matić brings more class and stability to the midfield, and as a result, more balance to United as a whole. The Serbian midfielder has a superior passing selection and range, better ball retention, more physical presence, and covers the right spaces as good as anyone. He’s not as mobile as Herrera, granted, but has a more intuitive understanding of the defensive side of the game; pretty much contributes what Herrera does defensively without breaking sweat, and is much more composed in possession as a bonus. You can clearly see José has more trust for his United side to play in a more expansive manner when Matić is on the pitch, which is only beneficial for all parties.
WILL THEY WIN THE TITLE?
Impossible to give a definitive answer with Manchester City and Chelsea among others looking like they’re in it for long haul, but they certainly look the real deal thus far and you’d be a fool to dismiss them. A much more balanced side this season, deciphered and overcome their goal-shy habits against deep blocks, and are playing with a lot of swagger. They’ve got a mix of pace and power in the final third, with plenty of high quality depth in the line of support behind Lukaku. They’re also expecting the boost of the returning Zlatan Ibrahimović before the new year to take some of the workload off Lukaku, and as we saw with Real Madrid last season, having the privilege to rotate your centre forward whilst in fixture congestion & juggling different competitions, without there being a drop off in quality (à la Benzema & Morata), is very useful. It would be the best striker depth in the league alongside Agüero & Jesus. United are also very solid in defence (as you’d expect from a José Mourinho side) with Eric Bailly forming a good understanding with Phil Jones, screened brilliantly by the aforementioned, Nemanja Matić.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that both of United’s key weaknesses from last season, midfield balance and goals against deep blocks, have been resolved by acquiring tried & tested, Premier League proven stars. It’s been a shrewd transfer window from Mr. Mourinho, and they look a much stronger and better equpped team for it. It can’t be stressed enough that it is extremely early days, and bigger tests await José’s men, but as it stands, there’s no denying they’re huge players in this years title fight, courtesy of a few second season José tweaks.