The home side saw a 55 per cent share of the ball, shot for goal 23 times to their visitor’s nine and enjoyed the lion’s share of the clear-cut chances.
But, between spells of Bianconeri dominance and profligacy, José Mourinho’s men showed, perhaps for the first time, a near-perfect balance between being a ‘Mourinho team’ and staying true to the club’s on-field principles.
“Attack! Attack! Attack!” comes the cry from the Old Trafford support whenever they deem their team to be playing too passively. Front-foot football, flying wingers and rapid interplay are core tenets of a style intrinsic to United’s past successes, and one fans believe should be a pre-requisite at the Theatre of Dreams, win or lose.
Mourinho sees things differently. According to Diego Torres’ The Special One: The Secret World of José Mourinho – a scathing look at the Portuguese manager’s Real Madrid tenure, but one clearly built around the accounts of key dressing-room sources – part of Mourinho’s seven-point plan for success in big games states: “Whoever has the ball has fear … Whoever does not have the ball is thereby stronger.”
Two philosophies diametrically opposed, it seems. But against Juventus, Mourinho struck upon a middle ground.
United’s recent results – a run of three Premier League wins and a draw from their last four outings – has seen them, as again in Turin, demonstrate a capacity to finish strongly and fight back from behind. But they have been criticised for the manner in which they start games, lacking urgency and beset by errors.
At the Allianz Stadium, however, United began as the aggressors. For the first half an hour, they went toe-to-toe with the Italian champions, pressing more aggressively than we have tended to see from the Red Devils under Mourinho and appearing more organised and composed in possession.
This was not swashbuckling, fast, end-to-end football – it was measured and precise – but it was, in essence, United playing on the front foot and taking the game to their opponents, and against as strong an opponent as Europe has to offer at present.
With a third of the game played, United had seen a 48.3 per cent share of the ball; they had not meaningfully threatened the Juventus goal, but, with neither side able to muster a shot on target, nor had David de Gea been tested.
Juventus soon took over. Sami Khedira hit the post in the 35th minute when he really should have scored and the home side began to turn the screw. By the time Cristiano Ronaldo lashed home a stunning volley to put the Old Lady ahead, it was no less than the Italians deserved, and several Juve players were guilty of wasting chances, with Juan Cuadrado the biggest culprit, firing high over the bar from ten yards.
By the 80th minute, Juventus’ dominance was almost absolute. They’d had 55.5 per cent of possession, shot 20 times to United’s six, hit the woodwork twice and forced De Gea into evasive action twice. Only their wayward finishing prevented them from being out of sight.
Mourinho’s changes around this juncture were influential, though. Marcus Rashford came on to inject pace and offer an outlet, Juan Mata, as ever, provided no shortage of guile and Marouane Fellaini was a physical presence even the outstanding Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci found a handful.
The substitutions helped revive United as a threat. Anthony Martial, who’d been impressively committed to his defensive duties throughout and the away side’s best player on the night, began to attack with renewed verve. It was his burst that led to Paul Pogba winning a free-kick on the edge of the box for Mata to curl home five minutes from time.
And it was down the left again that United mustered their unlikely winner, as Ashley Young’s in-swinging free-kick was deflected in off Juve left-back Alex Sandro. There was time even for a third, but Rashford squandered a one-on-one with Wojciech Szczęsny.
This was a classic European result for United, if not a classic European performance; they conceded a worrying amount of chances once again and could have been soundly beaten on another day.
They were outplayed for long periods, but that’s excusable given the level of opposition. Yet by viewing themselves as equals, making astute changes at key moments and by prizing their work with the ball as highly as their duties without it, United can’t be begrudged their hard-earned three Champions League points. And Mourinho’s fingerprints were all over this one.
There were more than enough positives in the performance to inspire hope. Hope that better things are to come, that Mourinho is finally adapting to United, figuring out a who his best players are and how they should be deployed, and hope that the Red Devils are not as far behind their rivals as the Premier League table currently suggests – a theory that will be tested in United’s next game, a Manchester derby at the Etihad on Sunday.
Return of the pragmatist
In footballing terms, pragmatism has become a synonym for defensive football. But a truly pragmatic coach finds the smoothest path to victory by emphasising the strengths of the squad at his disposal and mitigating against the weaknesses.
Mourinho is regarded as the game’s arch-pragmatist, and for a long time this was certainly true – his Porto side, for example would often absorb pressure against top-quality opposition in the Champions League while playing more freely domestically, where they were superior to their challengers; and his top-heavy Real Madrid were regularly a joy to behold.
In more recent years, though, Mourinho’s methods haven’t fit the mould of a pragmatist; he has become dogmatic in his commitment to caution, a defensive idealist.
It has been suggested that his defensive-leaning tactics at United are a result of there being few high-class defenders at Old Trafford, and therefore they must play defensively so as not to be unduly exposed, to the detriment of the club’s many gifted attackers.
That theory crumbles under the mildest scrutiny, though: you wouldn’t choose to play free-flowing, attacking football with a squad of strong defenders and poor attackers; likewise, you wouldn’t double down on a possession-based approach with a group of players who don’t pass the ball well.
Against Juventus, however, United’s performance was truly pragmatic. They were always going to require their share of luck if they were to beat the Bianconeri, but the balance struck between structure at the back and adventure further forward gave them the best possible chance of a positive result. And that is to Mourinho’s credit.
In a gesture aimed at the Juventus fans who’d jeered him all game, the United manager strode on to the pitch after the final whistle and cupped his ear. But maybe Mourinho is listening, learning.