Jose Mourinho has rarely looked as miserable as he did on Saturday, staring coldly at players, visibly irritated at the fan support (or lack of it, as it were) and all together cutting a rather miffed figure. Well, good. He should be miffed. Because on Saturday I think we saw, plain as day, by far the biggest and perhaps the only threat to us winning the league title this season, as we played like a team all too aware of how much better we are than everyone else at the moment.
Winning, scraping and clawing our way through big matches and tough encounters is one thing and its one thing which we know we can do. Maintaining a lead, showing the discipline, the concentration and the character to continually pick up results, even when they aren’t crucial, is whole other challenge entirely – and one which this group of players, for the most part, have never faced before. Mourinho, in all his dour and grim-faced glory this weekend showed why he is the ideal coach for such a challenge. Against the team with worst away record in the league, he was still livid with his star players for not tracking back at times. His demand for constant dedication and concentration and evident frustration when things fall off the boil is an invaluable advantage for a side in our situation to have.
One thing we could do without though was his needless and stupid criticism of the crowd. First off I’ve heard from many that the atmosphere wasn’t that bad (compared to average anyway), secondly I think if there were quiet periods, then it was more a case of the players’ complacency translating to the crowd, not the other way around. And thirdly, some people just want to watch football without singing daft songs or screaming at the ref; some just want to concentrate on the entire game as much as they can. I get bored of the suggestion that good fans = noisy fans. Obviously a vibrant atmosphere stirs on the players, but if you pay £60 to get in the ground, my view is you deserve to see the best efforts of your players whether you decide to constantly sing their names or not.
At the risk of turning this side point into a mini-rant, digging a little deeper on this topic will probably take us to the heart of the issue, which is the unavoidable fact that success at a football club, especially one in such an affluent area and with a relatively small stadium, will eventually lead to the gentrification of the home support and it will certainly increase the average age. There’s no reason this should be seen as a problem. It might be controversial to say, but those who miss the raucous and vibrant, ‘traditional English’ settings of the Shed End in the 1980s will just have to come to terms with how their club has changed these past decades. This certainly is not to underestimate or undervalue the importance of tradition in entities like football clubs, but we can do so and simultaneously be accepting of the natural evolution which continued success will bring.
But back to the main issue, it’s starting to feel like we’re beginning to believe our own hype when it comes to persevering 1-0 leads. There’s no question that it’s something we do extraordinarily well, but five times now in our last 11 games, we’ve conceded an equalising goal. It’s also a fact that we have scored a goal in our last 20 matches, and since Scott Arfield’s goal on the opening weekend, we haven’t once been behind in a game either. What does this suggest? Perhaps that we have the firepower to blow teams away and simply are not doing so? Or that we fall away in games/drop in intensity, overconfident in our ability to defend a lead? Or is it that we’re seeing the emerging the signs of a more deep set complacency, that makes us believe we can win consistently without being brilliant? Or maybe it’s be some combination of all these things?
Many blame Mourinho himself for our lack of ruthlessness in finishing matches. His decision to bring on John Obi Mikel at Old Trafford last week at a point when we were in a strong position and in control of the game, was one which irked many supporters. I think it’s an interesting theory that our habit of resorting to ultra defensive tactics in big games, which bought us major trophies in 2012 and 2013, still lingers in the squad to a negative effect, when we have the creative talent and the firepower to be more proactive until the final whistle. My opinion is that Mourinho’s strengths as a coach will never change and he’ll always be primarily, a reactive tactician. And I think whatever way in which this hinders the potential of our attacking players is a price worth paying for the quality of organisation and motivation which he provides. I think there are ways we can deal with the problem of not finishing matches without resorting to a situation of mutual criticism between the fans and the coach.
Final point to make is just how good it was on Saturday to see the young star faces of the team stepping up to provide moments of quality and drag us through a tricky contest. Oscar’s opening goal was a piece of pure brilliance; it was another wonderful reminder of how, in addition to relentlessly doing all the simple things well, the Brazilian can occasionally perform jaw-dropping moments of individual skill on the field. He is an exceptional talent on top form – his finish also gave Cesc Fabregas his 9th assist in 10 games, a stat which is a testament to sheer consistency and depth of the Spaniard’s playmaking abilities.
Eden Hazard meanwhile didn’t have his best game, whilst some claim his penalty awarded was a soft decision. The Belgian however, with the game poised, was still able to make a great run into a dangerous position and draw the foul. His penalty kick, once again, couldn’t have been cooler. It makes a welcome change from recent years to see key players delivering in tough moments during tight league games. Long may these two continue to do so.