Ahead of the weekend’s big showdown with Liverpool, Miguel Delaney charts what has changed at Manchester United after Jose Mourinho’s magnificent run of nine victories in a row.
Even before Manchester United had gone most of the way to securing the first final of the Jose Mourinho era by beating Hull City 2-0, the talk around Old Trafford and Carrington had been of the good mood the manager is in.
The consensus is that he’s back to something like his old self: the mischievously assured figure that for so long seemed the right fit for the club in terms of personality – but a world away from the surly character of September and October, when so much seemed to be going wrong.
Mourinho did at least warn the United players of this possible contrast. On gathering the squad together when he first got the job, the Portuguese said he can be much more difficult to be around when not winning rather than winning.
They have done an awful lot of the latter recently. United are on a run of nine successive victories in all competitions, their best streak since January-February 2009, when they won 11 in a row and went on to win the title and reach the Champions League final.
This season is still unlikely to offer anything even close to that kind of success after the difficult first few months, but the real relevance to United’s recent form is how different it makes everything about the club feel; how promising everything seems again.
Although United won their opening three games in a reassuringly assertive manner, it made it all the more striking how quickly the specific problems from Chelsea returned. The bad run of September and October also seemed to reinforce two main justifiable fears about Mourinho: that his intensity couldn’t get the same responses out of his players anymore, and that that in itself reflected how many of his methods were no longer at the cutting edge of the game, especially in terms of the surprisingly basic way he sets up an attack.
Mourinho has started to offer the right answers to that big question, however, and also banish some of those fears. First of all, there is his man-management of the squad. There were some around the United first team who did privately speak with concern over his treatment of certain players back in September and October… but others said that was overplayed, that the mood was generally good. The latter should have been the ones who were listened to.
The United team looks unmistakably happy now. Even more impressively, a series of players who seemed like they could have issues under Mourinho have instead started to flourish: Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. All are either on resurgent or just rousing form, and the manager deserves credit here.
This has helped to restore a winning resolve to United, as seen in late wins like those over Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Middlesbrough. That resolve has also fired confidence in attack, to an admirable degree. In fact, the stirring football United have played has been one of the most striking things about this run. Even the League Cup win over Hull saw it. United were not as good as in recent games, but still offered some excellent pieces of expressive one-touch play, especially around Mkhitaryan and Mata, with Marcus Rashford then opening up entire stretches of the pitch with his sprints.
In the middle of all that, and more majestic than almost anything in the Premier League right now, are Paul Pogba’s sublime passes. He is another player who has moved onto another level of late, along with the star he has struck up such an understanding with: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The key point to all of this is that it follows an important decision by Mourinho to opt for a more attacking style. It is one that has started to pay off. His United play much more proactively and openly than most of the Portuguese’s previous sides, something that stands to reason since the team’s talent is so front-loaded.
It has always been wrong to say Mourinho never trusted attacking talent, though. In fact, one of the problems has possibly been that he had too much trust in such players. For the majority of his career, his approach has generally been to just get an attacking formation set up around his players that fits and synchs up – most clearly seen at Internazionale, where everything just clicked together – and let them express themselves when they had the ball, but underscored with clear defensive instructions when they didn’t.
A primary problem with that, however, was his teams visibly ran out of ideas when off form. It was as if they had no fall-back system; no general idea to take them through when individual attackers weren’t firing. That was most seen at Chelsea in 2015-16 and seemed to be the case in October and November this season.
Some close to the United training ground say this side is already different, though, because of the way some drills have been put in place to foster that one-touch football we’ve seen; to make the side more lively around the box. It’s difficult to dispute. It’s also difficult to say whether this kind of play can persist beyond the confidence derived from this run, or whether a reversal in form will cause a reversion.
There are still a few caveats to this fine run, after all. Excellent as United have been, the only truly good side they have beaten in this streak have been Tottenham Hotspur, and that was still a Tottenham Hotspur someway short of the level shown in their recent turbo-charge. There’s also the fact United are still just in sixth. It would be someway instructive, and also ironic, if United kept on this form but still didn’t really escape that area of the table.
The debate about Mourinho has not been that he is “past it” or “finished”, per se, but that the game has just moved on a bit. The United manager still doing well but not doing well enough would be partial confirmation of this. Antonio Conte winning the league with Chelsea wouldn’t look that good for him either.
But that is also why the Liverpool match at the weekend could be so key, especially if Mourinho manages to beat Jurgen Klopp’s side by attacking them. He would have bested one of the new breed of managers, who are supposed to have overtaken him, by beating him at his own game.
Things would look even better than they do now, and Mourinho might really look back to his best.