The honeymoon period at United rumbles on and so does Jose Mourinho’s personal quest to be everything that Louis Van Gaal wasn’t. Quite aside from the ‘trying to buy players the team actually needs’ oddity, we now have some evidence that the new manager doesn’t care much for his predecessors match-day decisions either. The fans grew increasingly irritated and dismayed both by the style of football served up by the Dutchman and his seriously annoying habits of just sitting there writing notes as his team were disassembled by MK Dons.
No such frustrations yet about Mourinho. In the low key friendly against Wigan Mourinho never left the touchline, cajoling and shouting instructions to his mix-and-match lineup. Heaven. And then there was the team itself, a hotch-potch of wannabes, new faces, long-term reds and the soon to be exiled. The aim of the game was not fluency, but to gain fitness, impress and show a reasonable understanding of the new tactical framework the players are being asked to play. If what we saw was a fair representation of the shape and style manager wants then the fans are likely to enjoy the football more than they have at any point for the last two years, minimum. There were two wide players, expected to hug the touchline and run with the ball, instead of habitually playing safe. There was possession, but with an eye to moving forwards as swiftly and intelligently as possible, and there was a purpose, even if the pieces of the jigsaw are still embryonic. It is still too early to say if the Mourinho era at the club will be a success or not, but it’s unlikely that the fans are going to be overwhelmed by frustration at their manager’s conservatism, as they were under Van Gaal.
As promising as the tactical framework and active, vocal manager were some of the performances. Wigan were poor and little can be taken from the result, but we saw enough of Henrikh Mkhitaryan to know that he is a player of some quality. Playing as a number ten he displayed a fine first touch, vision, movement, the ability to beat a player and to glide across the ground with the ball at his feet. In the first half, despite a poor miss, he was by some distance the game’s most impressive contributor. If Mourinho puppet Duncan Castles is to be believed then the Armenian will soon be moved to the right wing with Wayne Rooney slotting in in the middle, but those who have watched him regularly in the Bundesliga will know just how effective he can be in that position.
The match provided plenty of other talking points. Eric Bailly made a sound debut at centre back, despite speaking no English whatsoever. Let’s hope he makes more effort to learn the language than Antonio Valencia, still unable to conduct an interview in English after nine years playing in the country. That, frankly, is embarrassing. Juan Mata gave Mourinho food for thought, impressing in the second half, although one suspects that he will leave if a decent offer is received. With the manager making use of his entire squad, most of the young players in and around the first team got a run out. Will Keane scored after Mata capitalised on Jaaskelainen’s mistake and the impressive Andreas Pereira, playing in a deep midfield role, expertly fired home after the ball fell to him in the box. The Belgian-Brazilian was given little chance by Van Gaal and must have felt unwanted and under-appreciated, despite performing well at whatever level he was asked to play. Possessing undoubted talent it would be great to see him given a chance this season as a squad player. With copious Europa League games to negotiate Mourinho will need a slightly larger group than is his preference. That could also provide games for the likes of Adnan Januzaj, Timothy Fosu-Mensah (who started at right back on Saturday) and Axel Tuanzebe, for whom Mourinho has reserved rare praise. Whether he genuinely rates the young centre back or is simply telling us what we currently want to hear is unknown, but it would be great to see more of the Democratic Republic of Congo-born academy graduate before the season starts.
Returning to the puppet-muppet Duncan Castles, he this week published the third instalment of his Daily Record love letter to Mourinho, who he has to thank for his ‘journalistic’ existence. Last week Part Two consisted of a remarkable piece of fiction in which the South African based Scot rewrote history, claiming that the Portuguese had ‘bested’ Pep Guardiola tactically and psychologically, during their rivalry in Spain. No matter that the new City manager won more titles during that period and was ahead by some distance in the head-to-head record, Mourinho had wiped the floor with his foe. As invested in the cult of our new manager as I am, that was a propaganda leap too far.
Kim Jong-Il would be proud.
Thankfully, Part three of Castles’ masterpiece focused more on footballing and squad building matters and you can be relatively sure that it is a topic on which its author is merely parroting the words of his master. Mourinho will want the names of the players he no longer wants out in the open to attract interest and thus the futures of Juan Mata, Marcos Rojo, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Daley Blind appear to be away from Old Trafford. In what is likely to become a regular occurrence if things do not go to plan for the manager, Castles stated that Mourinho was becoming increasingly frustrated at United’s ‘sloth’ in getting players out of the door. Rojo is attracting interest from Villarreal but, as yet, there has been little movement.
Perhaps more surprising was the admission that Mourinho intends to keep Marouane Fellaini, the little loved lolloping elbow, the Portuguese supposedly valuing his experience and physicality. It is likely that the collective groan of the millions of United fans worldwide could be heard from space.
The Paul Pogba transfer continues to rumble on. United continue to ‘prepare’ their offer for the Frenchman and are ‘poised’ to make their move, ‘ready to pounce’ like transfer lions and unleash their mighty ‘war-chest’. Ooh err. This could be a pivotal week as the French midfielder returns from his holiday in the United States, where he totally coincidentally dined with new United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. I wonder what they talked about….