I guess the danger with results and performances as uplifting and emphatic as last Monday’s against Manchester City, is just how quickly the positivism and momentum they generate can disappear. Saturday’s win over Newcastle, coupled with Eden Hazard’s joyous performance gave us the opportunity to savour every possible drawn-out sentiment of satisfaction taken from the Etihad Stadium; Tuesday’s indiscretion at the Hawthorns however served as that dreaded, sobering reminder, that despite having gone way overboard with his downplaying of his side’s short-term trophy winning potential, there is an element of truth buried somewhere within Mourinho’s ridiculous ‘little horse’ metaphor.
The final 30 minutes of our game against West Brom were the worst we’ve played since the extra time period in our League Cup defeat to Sunderland. The attacking substitutions made were impotent until the final whistle, the defensive line dropped way too deep and after Petr Cech and Branislav Ivanovic’s pathetic altercation (following’s the Serb’s needless wandering out of position) you started to feel the confidence gained from such a controlled performance till then, beginning to quickly fade. Surely no one was surprised when the equaliser was conceded?
Jose’s post game lamentation of his side’s ‘lack of character’ I thought involved a strange choice of words, bringing back memories of similar comments from earlier in the season when I think they might have been more reasonable. The points lost in the week were a blow but the overall forwards movement made in such a clear direction over the past couple of months, I think must represent some exceptional work done by the coach and players, particularly when in comparison to rival clubs like Arsenal and Man Utd, both of which currently seem to lack any clear strategic plan or visualised end product…
The beginnings of what appear to be Arsenal’s traditional February collapse have turned up the scrutiny on Arsene Wenger – perhaps unfairly considering he’s kept Arsenal at the top of the table for pretty much the entire season – though recently some ordinary tactical performances from the Frenchman in big matches, in conjunction with his inability (or decision not) to strengthen his squad in January, has left some wandering if Wenger might be close to blowing his first real opportunity of winning the league for a long time. Criticisms of indecisiveness and poor tactical planning however are of course, far more applicable to David Moyes than Wenger currently. Mourinho may have been deemed unsuitable by the MU board of directors in the summer, but how they must be wishing at the moment to see some of the fearless and uncompromising decision-making talent demonstrated by the Portuguese this season, in their own manager – who has rather painfully gone about exceeding absolutely nobody’s expectations.
Whilst Jose has been moving on fan favourites (with minimal fuss), resigning formerly rejected young talent (with minimal shame), phasing out those no longer good enough and extracting the very best from those still able to fully contribute, his Glaswegian counterpart, presently enjoying the job we’re repeatedly told our manager craved above all others, has spent a considerable amount on two patently unsuitable players, whilst foolishly persevering with a plethora of options either too old, too shiftless or just not good enough to compete for trophies.
The shoddiness of the work of the Manchester Utd management staff this year has been a usefully reliable source of consolation when things haven’t gone so well; Man City’s recent blip is a comforting reminder also that the most dangerous of our opponents this season are fallible too. Though we certainly aren’t without fault ourselves and I’ve made a few observations of late that I think could end up being problems should they remain unaddressed for much longer.
1) The first and probably main concern I have at the moment is this misreckoning of the importance of having/maintaining such high energy levels throughout the game, especially against the smaller sides (West Brom, West Ham etc). Not all that long ago the consequence of Ramires being unavailable for selection was huge, with the Brazilian’s relentless hard running, pivotal to our ability to press the opponent/keep a relatively high line. Now though, with Matic, Oscar and Willian in the side, just what Ramires offers the side has become far less obvious. It seems pretty clear that the main reason for the four dropped points in our last four games was not a lack of dynamism in midfield. And yet this is what Mourinho’s tactics and selection seemed to be prioritising.
2) My second point is largely the same as the first so I’ll be terse. I think the manager’s use of Oscar is becoming increasingly exploitative of the player’s willingness to suppress his more natural attacking/creative instincts to focus more on his supplementary defensive duties (I say this making the assumption Oscar is doing exactly what he is told by the coach). Some of the Brazilian’s performances have been criticised recently, but I think the issue is more one of deployment than form. His work rate and defensive awareness is what sets Oscar apart from the rest of Europe’s young playmakers but it isn’t what makes him special in the first place. In my opinion, certainly against the smaller sides at least, Mourinho needs to allow Oscar more freedom to maintain a higher position – he has too much talent to waste constantly being the one to retrieve the ball on the half way line.
3) Finally, before the big turnaround in December, criticisms were beginning to arise regarding Mourinho’s methods of rotation, or lack thereof. Having seemingly settled on a first choice XI now, these concerns are starting to resurface. With Man City’s current injury predicaments, we have by far the strongest and deepest pool of players available to choose from at the moment – which is an advantage I don’t think we’re even close to making full use of. I think we could come to rue missed opportunities to rest Willian, Hazard and Azpilicueta over this past fortnight, once the big league games and Champions League ties come back around.
If you wanted to describe these criticisms as nitpicking then I’d agree with you to an extent. If we can defeat Man City on Saturday evening (and complete the treble over them this season) then these issues certainly won’t be at the forefront of my mind. This problem we have however, struggling to deal with the league’s smaller sides is the sole reason I’m still hesitant to consider ourselves favourites for the league title. Solace can be taken in the fact however that much more difficult problems have been successfully addressed by Mourinho so far this year.