May 8, 2013, a day that will surely forever be remembered by Manchester United supporters as a rather dismal day. The end of an era when the great Sir Alex Ferguson announced that he’d be retiring at the end of the season. Thirteen league titles, two Champions League crowns, five FA Cups, and four League Cups in his illustrious 26 seasons at Manchester United and since his retirement, no manager has come close to replicating the product he put on the pitch. David Moyes failed to handle the pressure of the job and only lasted 9 months at the helm before being sacked and replaced by United great Ryan Giggs for the rest of the season. Louis van Gaal didn’t understand the “Manchester United way” of playing football and his stubbornness eventually led to his dismissal. Van Gaal did manage to capture FA Cup in 2016, but was ruthlessly sacked only two days later.
Fast forward another four days and Jose Mourinho, the self-proclaimed special one, is announced as the next manager of Manchester United, the fourth in three years since Ferguson’s retirement. Manchester United requires a manager with a huge ego who embodies the big club attitude, and that’s what Jose Mourinho brings. It showed in the summer transfer window when he brought in Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly, and Paul Pogba in a world record deal. All four have been major hits at Old Trafford and the swift business to conclude the deals had been unknown to supporters in recent years. It has never mattered what players are brought in, it’s all about the product on the pitch. The players under Ferguson understood what it meant to put on the Manchester United shirt and the pressure as soon as they stepped into the Theatre of Dreams and the last couple of years, players haven’t embodied that.
Last season, flashes of the old Manchester United showed from time to time, but it wasn’t there consistently throughout the season. Multiple 1-1 draws at Old Trafford to teams in the lower half of the table seemingly stunted United’s growth and left fans unhappy with missed opportunities. Mourinho did lift trophies in the Community Shield, EFL Cup, and Europa League which granted United qualification into the Champions League, the all-important goal. He is the first ever manager at Manchester United to win a trophy in his debut season, and United showed promise under Mourinho.
Now to present day, and Manchester United are joint leaders with crosstown rivals Manchester City and have looked the best they have since the Ferguson years. Seventeen goals in six games and conceded only two goals. So what is attributed to this big change from last season to this season? Mourinho now knows his squad and how best to set them up. Last season he seemed to struggle with choosing the right tactics for each match and didn’t know his squad very well. He struggled to get the best out of his then most expensive player in the world Paul Pogba, often playing him out of position along with many others. Squad depth was a massive problem and he even refused to play Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial for periods of time until he felt they were suited to his demanding system. Pogba, Mkhitaryan, and Martial all seem to be comfortable this season and they are on top form. The addition of Nemanja Matic has freed Paul Pogba of his defensive duties and allowed Mourinho to switch to his much preferred 4-2-3-1 and United are playing beautiful attacking football. The switch in formation has allowed Mkhitaryan to move into his preferred number 10 role and he has excelled so far with five assists. Martial has found a source of confidence in Mourinho and appears a new player. New striker Romelu Lukaku seems the perfect target man for this United side, scoring eight goals in eight matches, and he has unlocked a new dimension in the attack.
Mourinho has instilled a mentality in his players that they are the best in the league and it is showing in their performances. He has completely changed the attitude in the dressing room and the players are reaping the benefits. With the attitude at United at an all-time high in the post-Ferguson era, they look to be close to the Manchester United standard that supporters know and often forget. Mourinho knows exactly what it takes to lead a club to European glory. They finally appear to be on the right track back to where they belong and the other European giants should start looking over their shoulder.
Cody Mefferd (Twitter – @MartialSpice)
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