Pep & Jose Chronicles, Chapter 4

In his latest dispatch from Manchester, Andy Mitten examines the tactical health of United and City, with the help of Danny Higginbotham, Jamie Carragher and Ron Atkinson, amongst others.

By Andy Mitten

December 13, 2016

Back in September, under a leaden sky on Sir Matt Busby Way by Old Trafford, a Manchester City fan spoke confidently ahead of the derby.

“Whoever finishes above either of us will win the league,” he said.

I nodded in agreement. Both squads were stocked with experienced top-class talent and equal favourites for the title.

The month before, almost 80 per cent of United fans polled by United We Stand were certain their team would finish first or second. Only 0.5 per cent saw United dropping outside the top four. Senior officials at the club were aware of the poll result, and while they didn’t want to dampen expectations, they were concerned that fans were expecting too much too soon.

In mid-December, however, we find the two Manchester giants fourth and sixth in the Premier League. United are 13 points off leaders Chelsea after only 15 games, and six points off a top-four finish. United have won only three times in the league since their three August victories.

A new poll illustrates a reality check. Now only 5 per cent of fans think United will finish in the top two, with 55 per cent predicting they will be outside the top four and a Champions League finishing position come May.

City might be in better shape than United in the league, but they’ve not been the indomitable force that was expected after their domination of the derby. In truth, both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have struggled to find their preferred sides—two revered tactical minds, with very different philosophies, mired in indecision and uncertainty.

Tactics are everything in Manchester this season.

Sergio Aguero celebrates scoring against Chelsea at the Etihad. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Manchester City manager Guardiola made 46 changes in his first 14 Premier League lineups, more than any other manager. Top-of-the-table Chelsea made only seven under new boss Antonio Conte in the same period.

“Guardiola makes those changes to put one over the opposition,” former United manager Ron Atkinson says. “He’s not doing it because he doesn’t know his best team, though he never made changes at Barca as he does now. That shows that he hasn’t got the calibre of players which he had at Barca, where he just tweaked what Frank Rijkaard had done. Having Lionel Messi helped, too. At Bayern Munich, he took over the best team in the league too. It was almost harder to lose the league than win it for Bayern.

“Now he’s come to a club where there’s more competition, where he’s expected to win the league. This is the biggest challenge of his career, and he’s adapting. His football is different at City. I don’t see his side playing a pressing game as they did at Barca.”

Fourteen league games in, Manchester United manager Mourinho had made 29 changes as he searched for his best 11, with his selections and formations shifting constantly.

“If he had to name his best team because his life depended on it, I think he’d be uncertain about a couple of positions,” Atkinson says. “He’s got too many players that he’s trying to accommodate.”

Former Liverpool legend-turned-pundit Jamie Carragher is bemused by what’s going on tactically at Old Trafford.

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Mourinho's decision to introduce Marouane Fellaini against Everton culminated in Fellaini's conceding a late penalty. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

“Mourinho is criticised for not knowing his best team, but that’s a strange thing to say,” he says. “If your team is not playing well and individuals are not playing well, you can’t know your best team because you change it to try and find another solution.

“When your team is playing well and winning, you know what your best side is. United’s performances haven’t been good enough, so it’s not a criticism of Mourinho that he doesn’t know his best side. He’s had too many players who haven’t been playing well enough, and so he’s had to make changes.”

Mourinho’s tactics have switched accordingly.

“At the start of the season, United played a 4-2-3-1 with Paul Pogba playing as a No. 10, which didn’t suit him because he’s far better facing the opposition goal,” says former Premier League defender Danny Higginbotham, now a tactics expert in the British media.

“A problem United had was that [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic was getting isolated, with the three behind him dropping deep to do the defensive side of things. The change in more recent games is that while people are still saying United are playing a 4-2-3-1, I go to games and see it more like a 4-1-4-1 when the game is in flow.”

Higginbotham thinks Michael Carrick is key.

“When he plays, the team create a lot more chances,” he says. “Because Carrick is protecting the back four, the midfield four are able to push forward and are often in advance of Ibrahimovic. Zlatan is fantastic with his back to goal bringing others into play, but he was too advanced at the start of the season. Now, you’ll see Carrick feeding the ball to Ibrahimovic while the other midfielders rush forward. Ibrahimovic can even start play before involving himself later in the move.”

Despite United’s winning start, Ibrahimovic felt he wasn’t being used to his strengths by his teammates, but he’s happier now. The return of Carrick, who barely featured at the start of the season, has been notable. Mourinho likes him and was happy to see him offered a year’s contract when he arrived.

Had Louis van Gaal stayed, Carrick thought he would be on his way from Old Trafford after a decade at the club where he’s won everything. Sir Alex Ferguson always maintained Carrick was a slow starter, but despite that, Carrick was entitled to be baffled when he didn’t feature at the start of the season.

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Carrick started in United's 1-0 win against Tottenham on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

“Mourinho probably didn’t realise how good Carrick is and what he brings to the team,” Higginbotham says.

Carragher also singles out Carrick.

“He is massively important, and I’ve always been a big fan of his,” he says. “He brings a calmness and knits the team together. But he’s 35 and can’t play every game.”

Higginbotham believes Mourinho’s tactical tweaks are always made according to their opponents.

“If United are expected to dominate, then Ander Herrera, who is full of energy, gets the licence to be a box-to-box midfielder,” he says. “Paul Pogba’s role barely changes, and he’s on the left side. When United play a better team, Herrera plays deeper.”

The Spaniard accepts this. “Now, I’m playing a more defensive role,” Herrera told me after a recent match. “I have to react when the team lose the ball and win it back. I also like to organise.

“I’m fine with adapting to whatever my manager wants me to do. I can play more offensively too—like I did against Man City in the EFL Cup.”

Carragher rates Herrera among United’s best players.

“Herrera covers a lot of ground and is aggressive...He came on against City in the derby and made a big difference,” he says. “When I’ve seen United at their best, it has been with Pogba, Herrera and Carrick in the middle.”

Atkinson describes Herrera as “a typical Man United player: quick, energetic, busy, lively. He always wants to be where the ball drops. He impresses me when he speaks, too. Football really matters to him, and I found that when I managed Atletico Madrid. They’re really proud to be footballers.”

Herrera in action for United against Everton. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Pogba, the most expensive player in the world, is under intense scrutiny. He feels the pressure of the move, but he’s happy at United, though there isn’t agreement about his best position.

“There’s no doubt that he has unbelievable qualities,” Carragher says. “And I think that as the months go on, we’ll be talking about a top player, but as a manager, who you play with Pogba is very important. In an ideal world, you let him do what he wants in a three-man midfield, but sometimes at home you want to play your No. 10—especially as United have so many players who can play in that position.

“Pogba can wander around in midfield in games like that. The problem is what he does against better opponents.”

Atkinson has a different take entirely.

“He’s playing on the wrong side of midfield,” he says. “He played in a diamond at Juve, where he always wanted to do a trick, but the other midfielders weren’t into him as quickly as in England. He still wants to do a trick with his right foot, but on the left, he runs into traffic too much. As the ball comes to him, he chops it with his right foot and gets caught in possession too much for a top midfielder. He’d be better on the right and would be able to play more first-time balls.”

Antonio Valencia has been one of United’s best players this season—a surprise given his future initially appeared uncertain under Mourinho. A man-of-the-match performance at right-back in a pre-season friendly against Galatasaray showed he might figure prominently. But, like with Pogba, so much depends on who else is in the team alongside him.

"As the ball comes to him, he chops it with his right foot and gets caught in possession too much for a top midfielder. He’d be better on the right and would be able to play more first-time balls."

Former United manager Atkinson on Pogba.

“Valencia has got a fantastic relationship with [Juan] Mata on the right,” Higginbotham says. “Mata can play narrow, allowing Valencia space to get forward beyond him and set up goals.”

United’s left-back position was expected to be occupied by Luke Shaw—a player Atkinson is certain is the “best left-back in England”—but things haven’t gone to plan.

“He’s one of the best left-backs around, an overlapping full-back, but he needs a run of games, and injuries haven’t allowed that,” Higginbotham says.

Carragher is critical of much of United’s defence as a whole.

“Left-back has been a problem for United, the centre-backs too, in part because of injury,” he says. “I don’t think Marcos Rojo is good enough for Manchester United, and while Chris Smalling was outstanding under Van Gaal, he has been in and out under Mourinho. I still think United are short of a centre-back.”

So does Mourinho, who may try to sign one in January, though Eric Bailly, a close-season signing from Villarreal, has impressed.

Pogba pictured at Old Trafford during United's 1-0 win against Spurs. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

With Guardiola at the helm, more scrutiny has been given to Manchester City than any other time in their history. And Guardiola, under the microscope himself, has had his tactics questioned.

“City under Guardiola are all about domination of the ball,” Carragher says. “They were excellent against United, yet United could have had a draw after their second-half appearance, which shows they’re far from complete.”

The quality of their top men is not in doubt. Atkinson calls out David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero. Higginbotham singles out De Bruyne as City’s best player so far. Carragher agrees.

“He was exceptional in the Manchester derby and has been in many games,” he says. “I’m a massive fan of De Bruyne, and it was a mistake of Mourinho to let him go from Chelsea.”

It’s at the back City have concerns.

“[Pablo] Zabaleta was a world-class player, the best right-back in the Premier League era with Gary Neville...but he’s not quite the player he was, so it’ll be interesting how long he stays around,” Carragher says. “I like Guardiola’s values, though. I don’t agree with his theory on goalkeepers, but he encourages his players to play, even when they make mistakes. He’s prepared to let John Stones fail, providing he attempts to do what the manager wants.”

Higginbotham believes opponents are beginning to work out how to take on City.

“Teams were fearful of playing them early in the season, but Tottenham approached them in a different way,” he says. “They had a high press and a deep press. City like to play out from the back, but Tottenham wouldn’t let them. If that high press was beaten, Tottenham’s players dropped back into their own half, making it difficult for City to get behind them.

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De Bruyne in action against Leicester City. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

“Tottenham were the first team to beat City, and other teams have replicated their tactics. City then realise that they can’t beat the high press, and they start to play longer balls. That can work—they scored the first goal in the Manchester derby by going long, but it can also work for the opposition because City don’t have a strong [Didier] Drogba, [Diego] Costa or Ibrahimovic player up front.”

Atletico Madrid used similar tactics to beat Guardiola’s Bayern Munich last season in the semi-final of the Champions League.

“Teams have also looked to counter-attack City because their two full-backs go into the central midfield area,” Higginbotham says. “They realise that while City are a very good team, they’re not Barcelona, and they will make mistakes as the team comes together.”

So why does City’s new boss move his full-backs into midfield?

"I don’t agree with his theory on goalkeepers, but he encourages his players to play, even when they make mistakes. He’s prepared to let John Stones fail, providing he attempts to do what the manager wants."

Carragher on Guardiola.

“To take the opposition wingers inside with them,” Higginbotham says. “Guardiola likes to create one-versus-one situations for the players in the team with pace: [Raheem] Sterling, Nolito and [Jesus] Navas.”

Carragher has doubts Guardiola’s full-backs are up to the task.

“That might be a position he wants to improve going forward,” he says.

At Barcelona, Guardiola played a regulation 4-3-3. At City, his tactical shifts have been numerous, including during matches.

“He rarely plays a 4-3-3 now, and we’ve seen him play with three at the back,” Higginbotham says. “He went 4-1-4-1 at half-time against Barcelona. He’s not afraid to change, and I admire him for that. He also turns the opposition’s strengths into weaknesses. He studies the opposition and pays them a lot of respect. He looks closely at the players he has and those of the opposition.

“He couldn’t play the Barcelona way at Bayern because his players hadn’t been raised in the Barcelona system. He’s inherited Manuel Pellegrini’s team at City, a team without an identity last season. He’s giving City an identity, and that will only get stronger when he gets his own players in who can play his system better than his existing players, but the one thing that Guardiola has not been frightened to say is that every game in England is full-on, and he’s learning as he goes along.”

City defender Stones under pressure from Chelsea's Diego Costa at the Etihad. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

It’s been rare in his managerial career for Guardiola not to lead from the front. His media love-in seems to have been one casualty of this, as Carragher has noticed only too well.

“He can be short and sharp in interviews if he doesn’t like the question,” Carragher says. “He doesn’t give too much away and doesn’t look like he enjoys dealing with the media, which is a shame because it would be good to see what’s going on in his head and get to know the man a bit more.”

Guardiola has started to give a few embargoed quotes to journalists from the Sunday newspapers rather than the separate briefing Mourinho favours. By giving journalists time, Guardiola tries to control the narrative. He also gets the journalists who cover the club closely onside.

Meanwhile, Mourinho is not the bombastic character with the media he once was.

“There’s probably a bit of hurt there from Chelsea because that was the first time he’s not had success in management,” Carragher says. “He looks a bit down and tired, like the twinkle in his eyes has gone, and I’m not surprised given the results he’s had in the last 12 to 15 months. He’s probably scratching his head and trying to work out what is going on.”

Both managers remain popular with their players; both benefit from not being Pellegrini and Van Gaal.

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Guardiola addresses the media ahead of City's meeting with Borussia Moenchengladbach. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Mourinho told his team in his first days at the club that he was not much fun to be around when his team wasn’t winning. Gradually, he’s listening more and more to his players. He’s at his desk at 8 a.m. and usually leaves at 6 p.m. to return to his Manchester hotel.

Guardiola works equally hard, but unlike his rival, he has a family to return to in the city centre.

Mourinho takes the train to London on days off to see his family, but his hospitality table in the directors’ box is often empty. His family rarely visit Manchester.

Guardiola’s talks with his players go well beyond the tactical. He’s told them that he wants them to sleep eight hours a night and that he tries to get this amount of rest himself even if he has early starts.

The Catalan will make changes in subsequent transfer windows and is looking for a centre-back because of Vincent Kompany’s injury situation. Long term, Guardiola also wants both full-backs replaced; yet City have no plans to change their midfielders.

“The very best teams have a top defensive midfielder,” Higginbotham says. “[Sergio] Busquets at Barca, [N’Golo] Kante [at Chelsea] or, in the case of City, Fernandinho. Fernandinho’s role is slightly different because he sits between the two centre-backs when the two full-backs have gone forward, allowing them to cover the width.”

Yaya Toure has been City’s key midfielder in their rise from also-rans to champions, but the Ivorian was left out by Guardiola after an argument between the manager and Toure’s agent. The issue was resolved with an apology in November, but the former Barca player appears a more peripheral figure. Carragher does not believe he’ll be there next season.

“He’s back playing now, and I suspect his strength will be used to bully smaller teams as he did against Crystal Palace, but he won’t be the figure he was,” he says.

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Toure is back in his manager's plans at City. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The most controversial change Guardiola has made this season was selling goalkeeper Joe Hart to Torino and replacing him with Claudio Bravo. Hart was a City mainstay, and while opinions on him were divided within the club, he was hugely popular with fans.

Higginbotham remains adamant Hart is the better goalkeeper.

“But he’s not a Pep Guardiola goalkeeper,” he says. “He wants his goalkeepers to be assured with the ball at their feet, like Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich. More and more, we’re seeing the two centre halves split when the goalkeeper gets the ball and the two midfielders move up. Top teams want to play higher up the pitch, and Guardiola like his goalkeepers to act as a sweeper.”

When this writer interviewed Barcelona’s Victor Valdes in January 2015, he said: “When you play as a goalkeeper at Barcelona, you have to take more risks than at other clubs. The team are so attacking, and the goalkeeper has to be part of that. Guardiola always told me that I should participate in the team’s play. He helped me interpret football. There were times that I played like a libero under him. I’ve always taken risks; it makes me the goalkeeper I am.”

"He’s back playing now, and I suspect his strength will be used to bully smaller teams as he did against Crystal Palace, but he won’t be the figure he was."

Carragher on Yaya Toure.

When Guardiola has something in his head, it’s his way or no way.

“It was fixed,” Valdes told me. “He didn’t change. If he thought we had to work on something all week, then we worked on it all week, and nobody could alter that opinion. He formed that through what he knew about football and through deep analysis.”

Atkinson thinks Guardiola is making a mistake.

“Man City have got a major problem with the goalkeeper,” he says. “I’d have Joe Hart back or, failing that, start Willy Caballero.”

Carragher is open to persuasion.

“I like it how Guardiola is thinking about football differently,” he says. “Whether it works out or not, it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out and what we can learn from it. He’s not a manager who likes to go completely gung ho. He usually likes five players in front of the ball and five behind, but they’ll have to improve the defence massively if they’re to win the title.”

Bravo in action against Middlesbrough. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Higginbotham is convinced by what he sees as an overall improvement at Old Trafford under Mourinho.

“United are a long way off the top of the league, but they’re moving in the right direction,” he says. “Watching them create opportunities under Van Gaal was like waiting for paint to dry. United are creating chances—they just need to be more clinical in front of goal. Look at the man of the match in United games recently: Lee Grant for Stoke, Tom Heaton for Burnley, Darren Randolph for West Ham. They’re all goalkeepers.”

Carragher is less enthused.

“United should be battering teams like Stoke, Burnley and West Ham at home,” he says. “They were all near the bottom of the league, and yet United couldn’t beat them. It’s true that United were creating a lot of chances, and it’s hard for a manager to change anything with his team when his side do that, but the league table doesn’t lie. Everyone knows that you have to play well when you go to Old Trafford to stand a chance, and teams have been playing well and getting a point.

“A lot of the top teams set up with high-intensity pressing from the front, but United don’t have the players capable of doing that. Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney don’t really have the legs, and Mourinho’s team have never really played that style of football over the years.”

It’s not like United have always had quick forwards, either.

“Some of United’s best teams have had quick players around their forwards,” Carragher says. “When Mark Hughes played up front, he was supported by fast wingers like Ryan Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe. But who do United play around them? [Anthony] Martial is talented but has been poor this season. I’m a big fan of Juan Mata, but he has no pace.”

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Mata pictured in action against West Ham. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Atkinson believes Mata should be in the No. 10 position.

“That’s where he was most effective at Chelsea, but he’s playing on the right at United,” he says. “He opens his body when he cuts in and hits a lot of square balls. Mata’s worked hard at his defensive side, and I liken him to David Silva, but he’s not quite as quick.”

There are others in the mix for that position too.

“Henrikh Mkhitaryan is talented and is starting to figure more,” Carragher says. “He’s another player who is competing for a similar role. Marcus Rashford is fast but young, and most young players struggle for consistency.”

Carragher lays the responsibility firmly at the manager’s door.

“Mourinho used to be a master at winning big games, but whatever his methodology has been since the start of last season, it has not been working at Chelsea or United,” he says. “From what I’ve seen of United this season, the football they play is slower, and I can’t see them finishing above City, who have a great chance of winning the league.

“A lot of Mourinho’s tactics revolve around how he can get the best out of Paul Pogba, but even with the big-name players and signings, United have struggled to beat one of the biggest teams in the league.”

Carragher, however, doesn’t agree with those critics who say Mourinho is yesterday’s man.

“He only won the title last year,” he laughs. “He’s won the European Cup with two different teams. Some of the newer managers who are being lauded have won nothing, and it’s a bit premature to write Mourinho off. I think people can get too carried away when talking about changes in formations, too. The key is to play whatever system well. Leicester won the league last season playing a traditional 4-4-2.

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Ibrahimovic watches as his shot heads goalwards against Everton at Goodison Park. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

“Chelsea are top of the league playing with three at the back—something which has never won the league before.”

Atkinson sees Mourinho plumping for a preferred formation.

“I see United as playing a form of 4-3-3,” he says. “And Jose is a bit undecided as to whether to go with [Jesse] Lingard, Rashford or Martial, plus one up the middle—usually Ibrahimovic. It’s a system he used successfully at Chelsea when he had Duff, Drogba and Robben. That really worked because the wide men could pin people back, and the powerful centre-forward was a threat. He would expect them to work back and fill in holes.”

But here’s the problem: Atkinson is not convinced United have the wide players for that system.

"From what I’ve seen of United this season, the football they play is slower, and I can’t see them finishing above City, who have a great chance of winning the league."

Carragher on United this season.

“Martial has got the ingredients to be a top player, but I see him as a centre-forward or a second striker eventually,” he says. “I’m not sure he’s at his best when pinned against the line. When he—or Rashford—play in the middle, they can go past players on both sides, they can run free. I wouldn’t entertain Rashford playing wide because he doesn’t have a trick in his locker. In the middle, he can dart down the gullies.”

Atkinson has a suggestion for Mourinho.

“My front two would be Ibbo and Rooney,” he says. “I’d play a 4-4-2. That would shock people, and defenders would get a surprise having to mark two centre-forwards rather than one. Rooney is a goalscorer, as his record shows, but he’s short on confidence. I’d like to see him play on the half-turn more and flick the ball onto Ibbo more. He’s become a little bit static in his play on the premise that he’s strong and can sort things out when he gets the ball.”

Mkhitaryan celebrates his winner against Spurs at Old Trafford. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Mourinho and Guardiola face many challenges this season. As they become used to their new jobs, both say privately that the league is the toughest they’ve worked in because of the level of competition, the wealth of rivals and the lack of weak teams.

As Higginbotham puts it: “There was Ferguson, Mourinho and [Arsene] Wenger a decade ago; now you have Guardiola, Mourinho, Wenger, Conte, [Ronald] Koeman, [Mauricio] Pochettino, [Jurgen] Klopp and [Claudio] Ranieri. The gap has closed. The league is harder to win.”

“I’ve no doubt that Jose will get it right at United,” Atkinson says. “But I think it will take him a bit longer than he thought. I’ve been a bit surprised when he’s been publicly critical of players this season. That can hit the confidence of a player, but maybe he’s doing that to give them a kick up the backside.”

The last word goes to Atkinson. Despite his United history, he concludes City will finish above United, “but I don’t think either Manchester team will win the league.”

And even with all the focus on Manchester, he thinks the Premier League trophy is going to London. Could it be that Conte’s tactical mastery will outstrip Guardiola and Mourinho in Manchester?

Andy Mitten's nine-part Pep & Jose Chronicles will return with chapter 5 in Jan. 2017.