José Mourinho has, not always fairly we should point out, been associated with dour, boring football. The Portuguese manager is viewed as a man who has always been more attacking in the press than on the pitch.
Until this season.
Before now, Mourinho’s football philosophy has been characterised by this passage about his game-plan for big matches from Diego Torres’ biography on the former Chelsea boss.
“The game is won by the team who commits the fewest errors. Whoever has the ball has fear. Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.”
Chelsea’s 2012 Champions League victory, despite coming under Roberto Di Matteo, is a match which typifies the idea of Mourinho-ball.
The Blues beat Bayern Munich in their own backyard with just 40 per cent possession. They also got to the final by drawing, with a last-minute Fernando Torres goal, against in Barcelona, with just 27 per cent possession.
A rich man’s Burnley is how the public consciousness thinks of Mourinho teams. But this season, United are one of the most exciting teams in the Premier League.
A warped version of United’s past
Granted, it’s not quite an excitement United fans will be completely happy with. However, Premier League matches involving the Red Devils have the fourth-most goals in the league this term; an average of 3.27.
The nadir of United-watching came in the second season of Louis van Gaal and the first of Mourinho, where their matches only averaged 2.2 goals per game.
On top of that, for United fans, their team was far worse than they were used to – and, arguably, worse than they should have been).
It’s not just goals that make Mourinho’s side exciting to watch these days. Their games see the third-most possession sequences that reach the final third (either by United or their opponents).
One of the two sides above them is Manchester City, whose games are so skewed that, from a spectator’s viewpoint, they’re quite boring.
The statistical signs that United games make good viewing don’t stop there.
Most expected goals models just look at the quality of a chance at the moment a player strikes the ball. However, ‘post-shot’ expected goals models take into account where the ball goes afterwards (and are mostly used to assess finishing or goalkeeper skill).
If there’s a big difference between the two, then it might suggest that the normal model isn’t capturing everything, such as an unusually high or low amount of pressure on the shooter.
Manchester United’s shots are worth much more according to Football Whispers’ post-shot expected goals model than the pre-shot one (+3.74 expected goals, or a boost of 17 per cent). The chances of United’s opponents are also worth much more according to the post-shot model than the pre-shot one (+5.3, or a boost of 28 per cent).
This is a big flag that their games are open affairs, with less than normal levels of pressure on shooters at either end.
Working towards the United of old
A fast-paced attack. It’s what United fans were crying out for during the doldrum years of David Moyes, Van Gaal, and early Mourinho. And the fact that that’s what’s materialised at Old Trafford could be why fans aren’t more unhappy about being eighth in the table.
There’s also a strange sort of ‘never give up’ quality that was a characteristic of the club throughout the Sir Alex Ferguson years. In the past, it usually kicked in before the team was losing but it now seems to be back.
When a combination of Alexandre Lacazette and Marcos Rojo put Arsenal 2-1 ahead this week, the general reaction was ‘of course’. This — this farce — was what United were now.
But then the equaliser came straight from kick-off. It was ably helped by some farcical defending from Arsenal but this was the second quickfire fight-back of the week. Mourinho’s men were 2-0 down against Southampton within 20 minutes, but back level within another 19.
Just a few weeks previously, they’d come back from conceding an early goal against Bournemouth to win 2-1. Not long before that, they’d come from 1-0 down to lead Chelsea 2-1. And prior to the October international break, they’d come from 2-0 down to beat Newcastle 3-2.
This isn’t to say that United are good. In the early part of the season, before the Newcastle game, they were only bettering their opponents by an average of +0.38 expected goals per game. That’s not a lot at all. It’s also heavily boosted by a match against Burnley; without that, they’d actually be very marginally worse off than their opposition (-0.03 per game).
Since Newcastle, since the resurgence of United’s fight-back spirit, the gap per game is just +0.27.
United still aren’t particularly good but they’re at least exciting. And Mourinho doesn’t seem to be a rich man’s Burnley anymore. He’s a poor man’s Sir Alex.