Manchester United shouldn't expect Jose Mourinho to uphold the club's attacking traditions
Ian Wright offered some strong criticism of Jose Mourinho following Manchester United's performance against Sevilla.
United played out a tedious goalless draw in the Champions League last-16 first-leg tie against Sevilla, creating few chances of note despite having one of the most expensively assembled squads in world football. The Spanish side have a goal difference of minus-four in La Liga, and had conceded 12 goals in the group stages of the Champions League, but Mourinho's side couldn't find a way to score, and didn't seem particularly interested in trying to score either.
The former Chelsea manager conveyed, yet again, that in big matches, taking no risks, and not losing, will always take precedent over attempting to win. No-one should be surprised, backing a goalless draw in a big match where Mourinho is the away manager is the safest bet in football. Yet, Wright said he was "baffled with the sterile football" played by United, and questioned what Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Alex Ferguson would make of such a dire display.
— BBC 5 Live Sport (@5liveSport) February 21, 2018
Wright wasn't the only one to take issue with United's performance on the night because it contradicted the attacking traditions of the club. And he does have a valid point when he says the United legends wouldn't have been satisfied by the performance. When they had a say in appointing United's manager, Charlton and Ferguson overlooked Mourinho in favour of David Moyes. An awful game against Sevilla won't have changed the opinion of either man about the merits of Mourinho.
However, there's really no point in criticising Mourinho for failing to adhere to United's attacking traditions. It's not the past that's the problem here, it's that Mourinho's brand of football looks dated and unlikely to deliver success for the club in the Champions League or the Premier League.
Mourinho shouldn't be bound by tradition. He's there to do a job, and he's going to do it in a manner that has brought him success in the past. United fans knew what they were getting when he was appointed, this can't be a surprise.
Mourinho will never play open, expansive, attacking football, and there's nothing to suggest he can coach a side to play in this manner. The draw with Sevilla was just the latest example of a team without a clear attacking plan. United were waiting for the opponent to make a mistake while the defence and midfield remained rigidly stationed behind isolated forwards, everything in the final third was improvised, off the cuff, and disjointed.
But football is a low-scoring sport, so if the 2013-version of Robin van Persie, rather than Romelu Lukaku, had been playing, then maybe United would have escaped with a win, and Mourinho would have felt validated.
— Robert Redmond (@RobRedmond10) February 21, 2018
How United played in the past is of no concern to him, and it's probably unfair to criticise him for failing to adhere to ill-defined principles of attacking football. United didn't always play free-flowing football either. Ferguson regularly used players such as Roy Keane, Nicky Butt and Paul Ince to nullify the threat of Steve McManaman when United played Liverpool. Keane put in one of his best performances ever in the 1996 FA Cup final, a game remembered as one of the worst cup finals ever. Eric Cantona scored the only goal, and Keane assured Liverpool's talented team never got going.
When they advanced past Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals in 2008, United had 27 percent possession at the Nou Camp in the goalless first-leg, and 37 percent possession in the return tie when they won 1-0 thanks to Paul Scholes' goal. Ferguson's team failed to have a shot on target when they played Manchester City in April 2012, losing 1-0 in a game that effectively decided the title.
Ferguson was as capable of playing conservatively if the occasion called for it. But the former United manager was pragmatic, he approached a game on its merits and tailored a plan to suit it. Mourinho takes an identical approach in every big match, regardless of the talent or form of the opponent. It's on this basis that the current United manager can be criticised. Not his failure to respect the club's tradition of attacking football, but rather how unsuited his tactics are for success going forward.
If Mourinho isn't a success at United – if he doesn't win the Premier League or the Champions League – then it'll be because his methods have been bypassed, not because he didn't adhere to the club's tradition. It could even be argued that Mourinho was somewhat bypassed by Ferguson over a decade ago. He had great success in his first two seasons with Chelsea, playing brilliantly effective counter-attacking football and taking the Premier League by storm, winning two league titles. With Roman Abramovich's billions behind him, it looked as though nothing could stop Mourinho from dominating English football.
Yet, Ferguson adapted. He built a defence which was just as strong as Chelsea's - United went 14 consecutive games of the 2008/09 season without conceding a goal - and mirrored Mourinho's approach by starting the 2006/07 season strongly, rather than aiming to peak after Christmas. Ferguson bypassed his rival. He ditched United's lone striker system by selling Ruud van Nistelrooy and deployed a fantastic, fluid front-three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney. United played without a recognised centre forward, but with a level of attacking flair and versatility beyond anything we've ever seen from a rigid Mourinho side.
Football has moved on from Mourinho's high-points in 2004 and 2010, but it doesn't seem like he has adapted his tactics. That should be the main concern for United fans, and the primary criticism of Mourinho - not that his side doesn't play as United teams are supposed to. That was never going to happen, never will, and no-one should expect it.