Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United have banished the memory of Louis van Gaal’s dirge and brought fun back to Old Trafford – writes Jim White.
Amid the barrage of opinion that constantly surrounds Manchester United, there was one comment made during the victory over West Bromwich Albion which will have set off a symphony of orchestral delight in Jose Mourinho’s ears.
In his role as television pundit, Glenn Hoddle described Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s opening strike as “a proper Manchester United goal”.
The urgency of Antonio Valencia’s ball down the line to Jesse Lingard, the precision of Lingard’s first time half volley of a cross and the insistence of Ibrahimovic’s finish were reminiscent of times past, Hoddle suggested.
Three first time connections, and the ball travelling at breakneck speed from the edge of their own area to the back of the opponents’ net: this was old school United, turning defence into attack with minimum touch and maximum pace.
Mourinho would have loved to hear that. Because, for all the scowly exterior, this is a manager acutely sensitive to the charge that he is philosophically unsuitable to the club’s traditions, prickly about the charge that his park-the-bus instincts are anathema to the United way.
He is keen to prove that he can do things properly, to win with style. And finally, after four months in which the evidence of his grasp of United history was largely concealed by a succession of home draws, the world – or at least that odd bit of it inhabited by Glenn Hoddle – is beginning to take note.
“The way we are playing, independent of the result, is the way we want to play,” the manager said after the win at The Hawthorns. “In some clubs victory is enough. Victory playing quality football is harder to do.”
Mourinho was being somewhat disingenuous. Whatever the ambition, victory always helps. And three successive league wins have engendered a growing confidence within the team. Things that didn’t quite work in previous matches are now coming off. That in turn feeds the momentum. A side who looked by the end of November already unlikely to qualify for the Champions League are back in the running. Now with others faltering ahead of them, at the end of a singularly benevolent Christmas programme it would be no surprise to see them in the top four by the beginning of February.
Never one to underestimate his own influence, the manager will insist he had seen it coming all along.
What might be a more objective measure of the growing sense of competitiveness surrounding Mourinho’s United has been the increasing volume of the away support.
The hard core of United followers have always been among the livelier contingents in the Premier League. But the three years since Sir Alex Ferguson departed have tested their resolve. Last season it was particularly hard to get vocally excited by Louis van Gaal’s suffocating, unadventurous football. Try as they might, enthusiasm was rapidly diminishing. Even in victory at the FA Cup final, the fans were out-sung by Crystal Palace supporters.
This season, watching a far more persuasive team at last hinting of a return to the club’s core values, the fervour has returned. During the recent fixture at Selhurst, it was the reverse of Wembley in May: United’s supporters sustained a constant barrage of noise, a volume they maintained at the Hawthorns.
Sure, it helps they are watching wins. But they watched a victory in the Cup final. The truth was, the Van Gaal era had drained them of passion. And it was hard to rouse themselves after months of turgid nonsense.
And the difference in noise is not limited to the stands. Last season, the players barely communicated on the pitch. No-one spoke, the silence reflecting the lack of vocal direction from the dug-out. The consequence was a comprehensive leadership deficit. Nobody was prepared to take responsibility on the pitch.
After one of the best efforts under Van Gaal, a 3-0 win at Everton, Ander Herrera – who had scored a goal and put in a man-of-the-match performance – was taken aside by the manager and given a verbal dressing down.
“What were you doing at the far post to score that goal?” he was asked.
“Well, scoring it,” came the reply.
“But you shouldn’t have been there. I don’t want you anywhere near there. You go where I tell you.”
It was perhaps little wonder that Herrera, baffled and perplexed, proceeded to play like a drain for the rest of the season.
Under Mourinho, who is constantly out in his technical area issuing instruction, the sound picture is completely different. From David De Gea yelling at the back, through Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, to Herrera, Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba, forward to the skipper Wayne Rooney and the presidential presence of Ibrahimovic, there are leaders all through the team. Everyone wants the ball.
And with responsibility, with confidence, with assurance comes ambition. They try things. First time passing movements come off. Though no quicker than they were last season, the same players appear to have added an extra yard of pace to their game. Suddenly pundits start to make flattering comparison to former times.
Football management is an easy game when everything starts to come together. But for it properly to assemble, you need to have the right constituent parts. And Mourinho has proven over the last couple of weeks that he has the building blocks in place to make United not only competitive, but good to watch.
If things continue as they have over the last month or so through to May, those who, in the early season stumbles, wrote Mourinho off as a busted flush, out flanked and out manoeuvred by the new kids on the block, will be obliged rapidly to back track.
As Glenn Hoddle noted, there is definitely something going on.