When Jose Mourinho first arrived in English football, it was immediately graspable why players responded to him. Charismatic, handsome, sharply dressed, eloquently spoken and effortlessly confident, the Portuguese could be characterised as a supreme leader, inspiring a level of devotion that rarely exists in the modern game. Remember Marco Materrazzi openly weeping in Mourinho’s arms when the latter left Inter Milan for Real Madrid?
Years of stress, volcanic relations with opposing managers and waging war internally and externally with his clubs seemed to have worn Mourinho down in recent times. Far from the defiant, cocksure figure of old, the Manchester United coach has resembled an embittered, dishevelled middle-aged man – surly and agitated on the sideline, distant and cold with his squad. Usually crouched pensively in the dugout, he has tended to save his emotional outbursts for fourth officials and water bottles.
Which made Mourinho’s reaction at full-time in United’s 2-1 victory at Crystal Palace last week all the more telling. After the final whistle blew, he quickly consoled Alan Pardew before marching towards his triumphant players and embracing them individually, dishing out bearhugs one-by-one. It felt significant; the first sign of a unifying bond between coach and team, the first glimpses of the old Mourinho.
On the pitch, there hasn’t been the dramatic change anticipated, at least statistically speaking. In many of the categories, United are in a similar position to where they were in Louis Van Gaal’s much derided two years. In terms of passes completed, United are fifth in the Premier League, having ranked third and second in 2014/15 and 2015/16 respectively. They are fifth in average possession per game, after being in the top two between 2014 and 2016. They are third in crosses attempted, having charted fourth in Van Gaal’s first campaign and are in the top four of overall touches per game, just as they were in the last two years.
Mourinho’s team have largely comparable attacking and defensive records to Van Gaal’s in December 2015, scoring 24 and conceding 17 as opposed to 22 and 14 at the same point last year. After 17 games in 2015, United lay in fifth spot in the league table, they are currently sixth.
Where they differ is in the number of shots on goal. United were 15th in attempts last season, but are fourth this time around. Another noticeable difference is up front, where they now possess a clinical, elite striker. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s double against West Brom on Saturday was his 11th goal in 16 league games, equalling last season’s top scorer Anthony Martial already. “I think he proved he is a superman in his mentality,” Mourinho said. “What he is doing at 35 is a dream for every striker of 25 in the Premier League.”
The Swede’s first at the Hawthorns was one which both supporters and Mourinho will have derived pleasure from. Antonio Valencia floated a long ball down the channel for Jesse Lingard to chase. The England international then half-volleyed a beautifully flighted cross for Ibrahimovic to power past Ben Foster.
That wasn’t the only piece of encouragement for the 53 year-old. Following their late concession away to Everton, United have won four matches in a row, earning three clean sheets and letting a solitary goal in. Despite some nervousness, they managed to see home a 1-0 lead against Tottenham. At Selhurst Park, they churned out a 2-1 win with a late Ibrahimovic strike, even though the performance was below par. Against West Brom, they went 2-0 up and never looked threatened.
In his post-match press conference, Mourinho alluded to the style of football that most perceive as synonymous with the Old Trafford club. “At some clubs it is to win that matters. At this club, it is how you win.” Realistically though, Mourinho knows that sixth position won’t be satisfactory and that he will be judged purely on the results and trophies he delivers. Winning is the only currency Manchester United deal in, and their world wide stature is built upon the titles won in their gilded history.
Their three successive league victories have been distinguished by greater pragmatism and efficiency. Shedding the wastefulness that plagued them in October and November, United have scored five goals from their last sixteen attempts. On Saturday, Mourinho brought on Marouane Fellaini and Chris Smalling, shut the game down and they comfortably strolled to three points, an ability his Chelsea title winning teams especially mastered.
Defensive solidity will be the cornerstone for United moving into the Christmas period as well as the new year, so Phil Jones and Marcus Rojo’s blossoming partnership will be encouraging for Mourinho. The Argentine’s performances, his two red card-worthy studs up lunges apart, have been particularly surprising. This side appears to have the right amount of devilment, and with the reemergence of Michael Carrick, also the control.
At full-time on Saturday, Mourinho instructed his players to greet the travelling supporters in the Smethwick End and present them with their kits. “It’s Christmas time. A shirt for a fan, coming direct from the game with sweat, means a lot.” You get the feeling that the manager, coaching staff, players and fans are finally united again, in every sense of the word. Perhaps we are seeing the resurgence of the Red Devils and the first signs of life in Mourinho.