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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Manchester United and Jose Mourinho's lost identity highlighted by playing catch up so much

The club's continued knack for conceding early goals has been behind a lot of their problems this season

Jose Mourinho, left, and his Manchester United side have been put in the shade by Manchester City and their manager Pep Guardiola, right. Getty
Jose Mourinho, left, and his Manchester United side have been put in the shade by Manchester City and their manager Pep Guardiola, right. Getty

They lined up together, the three policemen, two of them supersized sentries, stationed in front of the back four.

A manager’s intentions can often be determined by the composition of his midfield and whereas Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City trio contained two diminutive converted No 10s, in David and Bernardo Silva, Jose Mourinho fielded a defensively minded trio of Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Nemanja Matic.

And after 12 minutes, Manchester United were still a goal down. In isolation, there is no disgrace in that. City are clinical and classy enough to unlock most defences.

Yet this was not a one-off. Mourinho forged a reputation as football’s most meticulous defensive strategist, sending out sides so expertly drilled they seemed impenetrable.

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If a glance at a league table showing United in eighth shows that this is not a classic Mourinho team, so does the slipshod way they have started matches.

United have conceded eight times in the first 28 minutes of league games this season. By way of comparison, Liverpool have conceded one and City none in the same period.

Mourinho’s most redoubtable defence were only breached three times in those opening spells of Chelsea’s entire 2004-05 league-winning season. United have become the defensive team who cannot defend. Mourinho’s gameplans have become redundant.

It has been one of the peculiarities of United’s campaign that they have looked at their best when they have resembled their past, attacking relentlessly, mounting comebacks, scoring late goals.

The reality is that they have needed to. Mourinho, the manager who prizes control above all else, has lost it early in too many games. He has had to improvise in the search for solutions. Rather than closing down games, he is chasing them.

So far this season, City have trailed for 12 minutes in league games, Chelsea for 38 and Liverpool for 64. United, ludicrously, have already been behind for 395, 85 more than Southampton and 179 more than West Ham.

They are forever playing catch-up. Sometimes it has evoked memories of Sir Alex Ferguson’s team in thrilling pursuit. Sometimes it has simply been a decline to defeat.

But it does highlight United’s identity crisis. The certainties of old about Mourinho’s management feel destroyed. Rewind 13 months and there was a clear clash of styles at the Premier League summit.

City were the possession side and the aesthete’s choice. United were forceful, physical, defensively disciplined and ruthless. Not now. Now they look more of an anomaly, an anachronism, unsure if to ape not just the leaders but their other rivals by pressing, playing higher up the pitch and committing to a different brand of football.

The normally diplomatic City favourite Pablo Zabaleta stated bluntly that United have “to change their style of play. They need to be more ambitious”.

None of which sounded like a description of a Mourinho team. And, with only two of his signings starting, outnumbered by men David Moyes had scouted, with United’s most encouraging, in-form attacker being Anthony Martial, who the Portuguese wanted to sell in the summer, perhaps it was not.

But after spending almost £400 million (Dh1.8 billion) and two-and-a-half years into his reign, it ought to be.

Instead, United feel in permanent, expensive transition, wondering what they are and what they should be. They are neither as defined nor as dominant as Mourinho’s best teams.

If City illustrate what they are not, it feels as though one of Mourinho’s feats is to persuade the wider world that little more can be expected of him, as if, having been denied a centre-back in the summer transfer market, he is blameless for defensive mishaps.

But United’s series of slow starts, lacking resilience or, at times, purpose, suggest an old blueprint either needs to be implemented better or discarded.

Mourinho used to build on the most solid of foundations. Now United’s are decidedly shaky. He used to begin games with statements of intent. Now the opening exchanges contain too much evidence of familiar inadequacies.