English football has worn down José Mourinho. Where once he charmed, now he aggravates. Where once he conquered, now he struggles. Where once he was special, now he is unremarkable.
And if reports are to be believed, his time in the Premier League could end where it began; Stamford Bridge.
It is a stadium Mourinho knows intimately. The scene of so many of his crowning glories in England. Yet tomorrow, if his Manchester United side are beaten by his old love Chelsea, and the Red Devils do dispense of his services, a place he cherishes will be forever tainted.
The Portuguese, for his sake, can’t allow such an indignity. His shortcomings mustn’t be highlighted so grotesquely by Maurizio Sarri. So Mourinho must fight his natural urge, must ignore his basic instinct, and attack Chelsea.
If he is to go down, he needs to go down fighting.
Let the dog off the leash
Mourinho is often pigeonholed as a pragmatist. A man who will do whatever it takes to win a game of football. But that’s isn’t exactly the case, especially when he goes up against one of the Premier League’s elite.
It’s at that point that Mourinho becomes a dogmatist. A man so steadfast in his belief that sitting deep, soaking up pressure and countering at pace is the way to win, that he will ignore any other approach even if it is more logical.
But Mourinho must break this pattern against Chelsea. Manchester United have the players to go toe-to-toe with one of the best sides in the country – they proved that when they came from two goals behind to beat runaway champions Manchester City last season – so let them play.
And, despite being unbeaten this season under Sarri, Chelsea are far from the finished article. There are systemic problems that can be exploited. Yet it requires bravery to do so.
This season Chelsea have conceded five goals in eight games. In itself that is a respectable record, however, their underlying numbers tell a different story.
The Blues expected goals conceded stands at 9.55, a tally worse than Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, while the big chances they’ve conceded amounts to 15, the joint-fourth largest in the Premier League.
Chelsea’s big strength under the Italian is their attack, and particularly Eden Hazard. Of course, it’s important to try to shackle the Belgian but not at the expense of losing a member of your midfield.
Often Mourinho has deployed Ander Herrera to man-mark the Blues No.10 and, on one occasion at Old Trafford, it worked well.
However, given the pace at which Sarri’s midfield rotate the ball, United can’t afford to be outmanned in the middle of the pitch. They’ll need to press, especially when N’Golo Kanté has the ball, to cause mistakes and then quickly attack in numbers.
Fred and Paul Pogba’s athleticism could prove vital in exploiting the technically gifted but slow Jorginho. There is constantly space behind the Italian when Chelsea lose possession. In transitions, they’re vulnerable.
Below, taken from the Blues’ draw with Liverpool, an attack has broken down and Liverpool quickly advance through Naby Keïta.
Jorginho is retreating but is no match for Sadio Mané. In the space of a few seconds, Liverpool have gone from defending their own box to three free players ahead of the Chelsea defence.
This scenario plays out multiple times in a game. Arsenal had countless chances when they went to Stamford Bridge earlier in the campaign because, while being open themselves, they played fast, penetrative football.
Even Bournemouth found holes in Chelsea’s defensive third when they succumbed to a 2-0 defeat in West London. Manchester United, given the talent in the side, should be more than capable.
And importantly, while they do have several problems, pressing opponents isn’t one of them. The Red Devils, perhaps surprisingly, have allowed their Premier League opposition 3.32 passes per possession this term, a figure that is only bettered by three other teams.
José’s last stand?
Of course, a change of approach will be entirely down to Mourinho. And history suggests he isn’t a man for turning.
But United aren’t good enough to stubbornly defend their goal for prolonged spells, they’ve proved that this season. Chelsea will find gaps if they’re given time on the ball. So the Red Devils must press, they must punish, they must attack.
If this is to be Mourinho’s last stand then why not go out in a blaze of glory?