Rewatching Jose Mourinho era United matches is high comedy

Even during the 'good' times Jose Mourinho had some truly awful tactics and watching it back years later makes for really funny viewing

I’ve basically completely blocked the 2016-17 Manchester United season out of my memory. I always assumed that everyone else did too. I confirmed this when I fired up some matches from Jose Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford. There are a lot of narratives that have taken hold from that season, and watching just a few minutes of game tape you can pretty much disprove them all.

What I do remember, and you do too, is how awful those games were. Even the wins. Every week was a slog. Every weekend heading to the bar, or just heading just heading to your couch to watch United felt like a chore. It was easy to block that season out because other than the Europa League final, there was nothing memorable about it.

As I mentioned, the other day I fired up a couple of matches from that season for something completely unrelated and let me tell ya, it was GLORIOUS in the worst way possible. One of the first matches I chose was the final match at White Hart Lane. The heart of Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs team against Mourinho’s United.

This match was so dumb. It was hilarious to watch but it was just so unbelievably dumb.

Let’s remember back to some things. We were all far less educated about tactics back then. Yes we knew Pep did his thing and Klopp had his way of playing but the tactical breakdowns you see today didn’t exist back then. Back then no one was breaking down tactics on the internet like they do now except for maybe Michael Cox. Personally I didn’t start studying tactics until around two years later, so to me was just another slug of a game and sloppy performance.

If we had the tactical understanding then that we do now, there is just no way we could have ever let this man manager Manchester United. Because oh my god I have never seen a dumber tactical setup then what Jose Mourinho did in this match. Within 13 minutes even the commentator was like wtf is Jose doing here?

Yes those days were dark but we’re far enough removed from them that we can go back and truly laugh at the comedy that was these matches. I mean, right from the start this is how United are coming out to defend. Press? What’s that?

Jesse Lingard is actively running away from the ball. Don’t worry that’s just the centerback, let him walk up the pitch if you will. Could you imagine United doing this now?

Surely Lingard is just taking a random instruction too seriously and this is a one off? Nope. Three minutes later here we are again.

It’s simply incredible. Lingard pushes up the field but once the ball comes out wide he stops in his tracks and starts backing off. Then he just… runs away. Ok maybe he’s going to try and cut off the pass to Harry Kane but… nope! He’s just running to the other side of the field for no particular reason! We’re only seven minutes in and you just knew this was going to be a treat.

It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that United’s PPDA1 for this match was a laughably bad 21.43.

I honestly wasn’t sure that United had even touched the ball in the first six minutes of the match but after five and a half minutes Spurs had a corner so someone in a red shirt clearly got enough of a touch to make that happen. Whatever, no biggie, this is five years ago, trouble defending set pieces is an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer thing. We could defend them back then right? Oh

Oh lord. This is not going on the Wayne Rooney highlight reel.

At least they got better in the second half right?

Oh.

Side note that’s completely unrelated. One of the other games I pulled up for a few minutes was the home match against West Ham. Exactly one minute into the match we were treated to Jesse Lingard committing a dumb foul at the edge of the box. The exact kind of dumb and completely unnecessary fouls that always seem to end up in the back of our net. Well,

Starting to seem like United weren’t good at defending set pieces back then either.2

The non-pressing was just the tip of the iceberg of Mourinho’s hilarious tactics. You would think if they weren’t pressing then United must be staying compact and organized defensively. Lol.

Here’s how United lined up on the day.

This was a fairly standard XI considering that this was the time where Mourinho was full on mailing in the Premier League and saving his good players for the Europa League. No one had a problem with it at the time.

You know how over the past two years with United not having a defensive midfielder fans have said “why not try Axel Tuanzebe there? He’s played there a few times.” Their referring to this game the two subsequent games over the next week. Only here’s the thing, on paper Tuanzebe is lined up in central midfield but he didn’t exactly “play” central midfield.

Tuanzebe played 61 minutes and touched the ball 20 times. He attempted 11 passes.

Not exactly a holding midfielder there. When Mourinho decided to start actually playing football in the second half, Tuanzebe was replaced by Ander Herrera who in half the minutes finished with more touches and nearly twice as many passes as Axel. There’s a reason that none of the managers Tuanzebe has had since have used him in central midfield.3

No, Tuanzebe’s job wasn’t to play central midfield in this match. It was to stick to Christian Eriksen like glue. Wherever Eriksen went, Axel went. Cutting off the head of Tottenham’s attack wasn’t the worst idea in the world, but it could be exploited so easily. Mainly if Eriksen went anywhere but the middle of the pitch there would be HUGE gaps in United set up.

That’s exactly what happened.

Because Tuanzebe was never in the middle of the park that often left Carrick alone there. To accommodate that you often had Lingard dropping back into a central midfield role with Juan Mata coming over to the right wing and Wayne Rooney playing as the left wing/number 10.

It looked hilarious and United’s man marking defending was so easily pulled out of position.

Because Eriksen is out on the right touchline, Axel has followed him there leaving United with essentially three left wings and only one midfielder. Therefore when Harry Kane drops deep to get the ball, it’s center back Phil Jones following him all the way up the pitch! Had Kane simply turned on Jones United would have been in big trouble.

Leave a comment

What happens when you don’t press and get dragged out of position? Nothing good usually.

Here, Carrick follows Dele Alli all the way up the pitch making him - the lone defensive midfielder - as the highest player besides Martial, leaving a huge gap in the middle of the park. Spurs immediately try to move into that space meaning someone would have to come help out Carrick. That someone was Eric Bailly, the RIGHT BACK!

Bailly is so far out of position that he doesn’t want to chase Son and end up more out of position. Once Son commits to going backwards Bailly drops off. However, Carrick is so focused on getting back into position that no one picks up Son. They just let him gather the ball and turn up the field. Guess what happens next?

Son turns and can’t believe his eyes at all the space he has. Only a half hearted tackle attempt from Carrick - who’s not known for his tackling - stops Son from practically walking right through United’s defense.

Mourinho ball! How can you not just sit here and laugh?

When all was said and done it kinda worked? Eriksen was kept quiet the entire match with the one caveat that he provided the game winning assist from a set piece. Ok - so it didn’t quite work but you can see how Mourinho could easily spin it into saying it worked!

That’s the whole issue with Mourinho’s ultra defensive approach. You might shut them down in open play but you still gotta account for those damn pesky set pieces. Then once you do keep them from scoring, how exactly do you expect to score yourself? Sitting back and hitting them on the counter attack isn’t the best plan when you three of your front four are Jesse Lingard, a paceless Juan Mata, and a well past it Wayne Rooney. When you do finally get the ball up the pitch, your additional support from your fullbacks is coming from Eric fucking Bailly.

Per understat4 the xG for this match was 2.11-1.04 in favor of Tottenham. That’s actually a pretty poor number for Spurs when you consider how easily they dominated the match but it’s entirely too high for United. A closer inspection reveals that 0.54 came from Rooney’s goal (understandable) while another 0.21 came from a missed Juan Mata header that wouldn’t have counted anyway because the flag was up as Mata was about five yards offside.5

So six shots for an xG of 0.29 over the rest of the 89 minutes. An xG per shot of 0.05. Checks out.

Comedy is just tragedy plus time. That’s the Mourinho era. I don’t miss those days but enough time has passed that we can go back and laugh at them. And if that’s not enough, we’ll always have this.

The final goal scored at White Hart Lane belongs to Wayne Rooney. Because of course it does.

1

Per Understat

2

Nearly 25 percent of the goals United conceded in 2016-17 were from set pieces (compared to 31 percent this past season). That’s not great but it’s certainly much easier to swallow when you only concede 29 goals all season

3

After United went 3-2 up against Sheffield United in 2019 Solskjaer brought him on as a DM for the final five minutes. The momentum immediately shifted back to the Blades leading to their equalizer. He also played 45 minutes there against Granada but that was just to give others rest

4

Because they’re the only ones that go back that far

5

One of those the xG counts because you missed ones