Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United scrapping without swagger

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One of the words that cropped up most often in discussions about Manchester United at the start of this season was “swagger”.

It had gone missing for three seasons, since Alex Ferguson retired, but now it was back. Between them, Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jose Mourinho brought a box-office appeal and a sense of assurance that called to mind a famous old Streford End banner: “Not arrogant, just better.”

But as was demonstrated once again  it has not really worked out that way. Former United defender Phil Neville felt the return of “that swagger and arrogance” would restore United to their former glories but those are not the qualities that have defined their first season with Mourinho.

It has been far less a swagger than a long, exhausting trek.

For a time, Ibrahimovic carried his teammates along like the most awe-inspiring sherpa, but his sickening knee injury has left them to continue the journey without him. Pogba, too, was missing yesterday, part-injured, part-exhausted. United’s early-season swagger has long since given way to a slog.

In a way, the gruelling nature of the campaign has enabled Mourinho to focus on what he does best. He might have spent the past decade and more working at some of Europe’s biggest clubs but individual brilliance and ego are not what he treasures most as a coach. He wants his players to sacrifice themselves for the team, to lay their bodies and their reputations on the line. He wants them to compete as doggedly as Antonio Valencia and Ander Herrera, for example, have done all season and Eric Bailly and Daley Blind did to highly impressive effect to keep Manchester City at bay .

Some Zlatan-esque arrogance might not have gone amiss at times but, more than anything, Mourinho demands blood, sweat and, if necessary, tears.

It might yet end in success on another two fronts in addition to the League Cup triumph in February; they are through to the Europa League semi-final and after this point away to Manchester City, they remain in serious contention for a top-four finish in the Premier League.

Somehow, without setting the competition alight, they have now gone 24 Premier League matches unbeaten. Somehow, after all that, they still lie outside the top four, but only two points behind third-placed Liverpool, who have played a game more.

There is, though, a growing sense that tired legs and tired minds are beginning to cost United. The injuries to Pogba and Ibrahimovic, not to mention Marcos Rojo, have stretched their squad at a time when Mourinho evidently has little faith in the ability of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones or Luke Shaw.

Then there is the idiocy shown yesterday by Marouane Fellaini, sent off for a headbutt on Sergio Aguero — though you would struggle to put that down to tiredness, given that the Belgian midfielder looks like a red card waiting to happen almost every time he plays in this fixture.

Funnily enough, this had been Fellaini’s type of game — and that is not a compliment to the spectacle laid on by the two Manchester clubs.

Pep Guardiola suggested in his pre-match press conference on Wednesday that Mourinho and United liked to play by competing for lots of “duels”, ie aerial balls and 50-50 challenges in midfield. There is some truth in that, at least where it comes to their deployment of Fellaini. His inclusion means that technical expertise is conceded at the expense of physicality.

It has worked at times this season, but only to a point. There is something highly impressive about that long unbeaten run in the Premier League — only two defeats in their past 39 matches in all competitions — but progress has been nothing like as serene as Mourinho would have wished even with such a demanding schedule. There have been far too many draws, too many scratchy performances. Resilience has been shown, but fluency has not.

Under the circumstances, if the season ends with a second trophy in the cabinet and Champions League qualification assured, Mourinho will be entitled to say the end more than justified the means.

The question is whether United could have offered more as an attacking force, even at a time when their resources are so stretched.

They began with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial all pushed forward, which seemed like a surprising statement of attacking intent, but even by the 10-minute mark, it seemed — not for the first time — like the game plan had little scope for Mkhitaryan’s playmaking talent.

Martial, no doubt to Mourinho’s approval, was more auxiliary left back than left winger. Rashford was the one who worried City but United did not look to him often enough.

This, more than just about any other match on that 24-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, was a scrap for survival.

Their supporters appreciated it, looking and sounding by far more satisfied than their City counterparts at the final whistle. Mourinho will certainly have been delighted by the doggedness with which they performed, every one of them. Swagger? There was none of that. It was not the occasion for it. United hope to leave the swaggering until the final game of the season. There is still plenty of work to do.

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