Jose Mourinho teams rarely play ‘well’ by the metrics most people use to judge the quality and dynamism of a football club’s performance. In their current guise peak Manchester United is defined by stoicism, by an arrhythmic control over proceedings punctuated by little moments of individual finesse. There is none of the flamboyancy of Manchester City or the blitzes at Liverpool, just a quiet, efficient suffocation of the opposition - and that’s no accident. Mourinho delights in pushing back against the tide of tactical fashion. To win simply by excelling in the two penalty boxes is to subtly ridicule the flourishes of that media darling across the city.
Plus there’s the added bonus of confusing the press, an important ingredient for cultivating a Mourinho-patented Siege Mentality. For many onlookers United’s 2-1 victory at Watford last weekend was somehow both competent and oddly disquieting, the post-match analysis full of hand-wringing over the acute margins, the reliance on individuals. Where’s the process? Does winning matches simply by scoring more goals than the other team constitute a direction?
Football’s essential randomness - or at least the fickleness of goals - makes us crave a process, some way of controlling the chaos. But since football so often insists on defying the narrative then perhaps there is no reason to build one in the first place. Mourinho’s oddly project-free tenures are, at their best, an affront to the notion that the variables can be controlled. Let the ball bounce up and down the field; just make sure you kick it properly when it drops in the penalty area.
United are finally doing these bits right, and that should be the main take away from their three successive victories despite the absence of an obvious master plan. Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling have played competently together in all three matches, suggesting Mourinho has finally settled on a back four, which should improve a defence that looked clumsy against Leicester City, Brighton, and Tottenham Hotspur.
More importantly, Paul Pogba is at the top of his game, which is to say he’s no less erratic than usual but poofs in and out of existence with moments of magic. Alexis Sanchez is jutting in similar fashion while Romelu Lukaku continues to look clumsy until the second he passes the 18-yard line. Between them United’s three star attackers are gradually absorbing Mourinho’s lessons in minimalism, in the essential meaninglessness of the middle bit of a pitch.
Meaningless in terms of your own build-up play, that is. Mourinho loves midfield destroyers and so it is hardly surprising that Marouane Fellaini has re-emerged as a vital component part over the last fortnight. He was dropped for the trip to Young Boys on Wednesday for Fred, whose decent performance suggests Mourinho had ordered the Brazilian to watch and learn as Fellaini tore up trees in the Premier League.
A title challenge still seems unlikely given the lack of squad depth at Old Trafford, but the tenacity on display in United’s last three matches is proof Mourinho can avoid the third-season collapse – and, via the Champions League, could even make the 2018/19 season a riotous success. Knockout football is particularly unwieldy and tends to mock the grander tactical projects; it is surprisingly rare that the European champions are truly the best team in the continent at the time.
Mourinho’s United tenure might be confusing, but that doesn’t mean he’s confused. United could yet meander, dispassionately, to a fourth Champions League title, confusing and embarrassing the media in the process. Nothing would delight Mourinho more.