When Manchester United and Chelsea met in August, both David Moyes and Jose Mourinho were still in the formative stages of new jobs which carried expectations that they would evolve their coaching philosophies. That goalless outcome at Old Trafford is now best remembered for comments by England coach Roy Hodgson, suggesting it had been something of an under-appreciated classic. It wasn’t. Both Mourinho and Moyes had reverted to type that day and both have since done similar on a full-time basis.
Having been appointed by Chelsea for the second time, there was undoubted pressure for Mourinho to change from the defensive-first tactics that characterized his first spell at the club and has been his modus operandi throughout his managerial career. With a young squad full of creative talent, Mourinho initially talked a good game: not only was he eager to take a long-term approach with the young players placed under his charge, but that he would do so with a more flexible philosophy.
It is doubtful whether that was ever truly his intention. Certainly the exiling of the club’s two-time Player of the Year Juan Mata for not conforming to his rigid ideas suggests not, as does his treatment of the raw, but undeniably talented Kevin de Bruyne.
What initially was different about this Mourinho team Chelsea was a failure to lock down victories after going ahead. That culminated in a 4-3 victory over Sunderland followed by a 3-2 defeat at Stoke City in early December, and, after exiting the League Cup to Sunderland, Mourinho prepared the groundwork for the approach to change.
“We have in our minds to build a side in a certain direction related to the quality of players we have and it would be quite frustrating if we had to give a step back and change the way we play to try to win matches with one goal and be more defensive and go on the counter attack to win by one goal,” he said. “I don’t want to do it but I am giving serious consideration to it.”
The evidence is clear that he has done more than consider it. Chelsea have conceded just one goal in six matches since, which included a performance of startling lack of ambition at Arsenal. It may, with good reason, not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Mourinho is undoubtedly a master, one of the best ever, at a brutal win-at-all costs approach.
With an unbalanced squad, Chelsea lie just two points off the Premier League summit, and have this week moved to strengthen one of the weakest areas of their team with the signing of Nemanja Matic.
In contrast, Moyes has yet to move to address the problems in his Manchester United team. He deserves some sympathy for being handed a squad for which the fact that they were Premier League champions was hugely misleading. Yet, Moyes’s problems extend beyond merely personnel.
At Everton, Moyes achieved a good level of success by focusing on the opposition and attempting to negate their strengths. Yet, that same passivity was never going to cut it at Old Trafford and he has yet to show that he can construct a side capable of taking the initiative week-in week-out. While it could be argued that United were the more positive team against Chelsea in August, they did nowhere near enough to win a game at home where their opponents came ready to settle for a draw.
His tactics have been remarkably unimaginative. By some distance, Manchester United have made more crosses per game this season than any other team, according to statistics website WhoScored.com. That will not be a surprise to anyone who has watched them this season and seen the ball constantly sent out wide before being delivered hopefully into the box.
There is much doubt about whether such tactics can be consistently successful in the modern game, where matches are won and lost in central midfield. It is even more doubtful that such an approach is getting the best out of United’s players.
It is undeniably true that United’s central midfield is weak, yet they still have the passing acumen of Michael Carrick and more relevantly, the silky attacking quality of Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa. It is the plight of the Japanese playmaker which most epitomizes United under Moyes. While Kagawa has not always done himself justice this season, United’s best performances have nevertheless come with him in the influential No. 10 role.
Head and shoulders above the rest was the 5-0 destruction of Bayer Leverkusen away from home. It should have provided a blueprint for the team going forward. Instead Moyes gave Kagawa just 30 minutes in the same role in the following match at Tottenham before switching him to the left flank in order to have the more direct threat of Danny Welbeck through the middle.
As Jurgen Klopp is well aware, the sight of Kagawa plodding up and down the left touchline is a depressing one. Against Swansea last week, Kagawa again cut a dispiriting figure out wide before his movement inside at half time changed the game and saw United get two goals to secure a victory that ended a run of three-straight defeats. Without the still injured Wayne Rooney, Kagawa should be given a run of games to show if he can make that position he own. Moyes’s pragmatism suggests that won’t happen against Chelsea, although injuries might dictate he has little choice.
While both Moyes and Mourinho are inherently reactive as coaches, Mourinho is more certain, more ruthless about going about exposing his opponents’ weaknesses. Given what has happened since, Mourinho’s approach at Old Trafford now looks like a missed opportunity. He is unlikely to be so negative at Stamford Bridge, where he will have a chance to keep a Chelsea side, which has rarely played well this season, firmly in the title race. The ability to send a message to the club that overlooked him as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor this summer will be a mere bonus which the brusque Mourinho will relish.
Prediction: Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United