As strange as it seems for a festival for which the main theme is often ‘drink copiously to a rigid schedule’, the New Year is often touted as the ideal time for a bit of self-examination and introspection. That’s something Jose Mourinho may want to think about after no Romelu Lukaku or Zlatan Ibrahimovic proved no problem for Manchester United as they coasted to a deserved 2-0 victory at Everton.
More specifically, the United manager may want to take a look at whether he has allowed his tactical thinking to become restrictively inflexible.
Mourinho spent the run-up to the game bemoaning his lack of a number nine after both Lukaku and Ibrahimovic suffered injuries over the congested Christmas period – a set of games that United had complained about to the point of farce even before three successive draws against Leicester, Burnley and Southampton.
If Mourinho had shown just a bit more imagination, there might have been no need for concern on either front. The league’s two highest-scoring teams – Manchester City and Liverpool – have more than adequately demonstrated that teams can be well beaten without a traditional number nine, with wingers Raheem Sterling and Mohamed Salah leading the scoring for their respective sides. Even within the United ranks, Jesse Lingard’s recent run of goalscoring form should have been enough to convince Mourinho that there was plenty of potential for goals from his United side even in the absence of a big man up front.
Yet despite all this, it took Lukaku’s injury to effectively force Mourinho’s hand for this game. Before picking up a head injury against Southampton, the Belgian had played the full 90 minutes in 26 of United’s 30 competitive games this season. Fixture congestion is that much more of an issue when you’re so unwilling to mix things up and give your most tired players a much-needed break, despite Anthony Martial (who took his opener superbly) and Marcus Rashford providing extremely attractive – albeit very different – alternative options.
The change that was forced on Mourinho inarguably worked hugely to United’s advantage. Had Lukaku or Ibrahimovic been available to start here, it seems unlikely that United would have been able to counter-attack with anything like the delicacy with which Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, Lingard and Martial carved Everton open for two well-taken goals, with Mata also hitting the post earlier in the second half.
Compare the pattern of United’s play to Everton’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool three weeks ago, where Liverpool put Everton under constant pressure and were met with ten men in front of them at all turns. Mourinho’s side is naturally and notoriously much less disposed towards carefree attack than Klopp’s, but here Mourinho’s rope-a-dope tactics were exactly the right approach, with United inviting Everton to attack before springing precise, incisive counter-attacks, finished off from outside the box to leave the hosts with as little time as possible to recover.
Despite being the least attacking side in the current top four, United are now already guaranteed to be the only one of that group who will end the season with six points from their games against Everton.
If that serves as a reminder to Mourinho’s fellow elite managers that there’s more than one way to skin a cat – should you deem such a gruesome act necessary – then United achieving this result and performance despite the absence of of the ‘number nine’ to which Mourinho has been so unswayably committed should serve as food for thought for him, too.