A football match involving José Mourinho begins and ends with the press conferences. The unpredictability of a Mourinho press conference is one of the most popular things about English football and many would be grateful for its return this week. In his last such session before the season came to a halt, troubled by an injury list the size of a supermarket bill, he had wished that he could fast-forward himself straight to July. He wanted to get his players back and start the new season afresh. Depending on which side of superstition you walk on, that statement, in the context of current reality, was either comic or eerily prophetic.
Speaking to the press through video on Friday, he was relaxed and composed, happy to talk up Marcus Rashford – who wouldn’t – and generally in a friendly mood. It wasn’t quite the beginning of a new season, as he had wished back in March, but this came as close to one as a restart can get. He likes his season openers. In the 15 that he has managed, Mourinho has won 10 and drawn the other 5. In an interview with SkySports last August, he spoke, almost with a twinkle in his eye, about how he treats the first match of a season like a cup final.
“It’s a different feeling, like Matchday 1 in a way,” he said, when asked about his team’s rhythm going into the game last night. And thus, we had liftoff. Jose was back, and the battle lines had been drawn.
Manchester United started the game with fluidity and rhythm; Spurs, like a typical Mourinho team, were happy to let them. For the first fifteen minutes, they didn’t press United’s defenders and rarely put pressure on Bruno Fernandes or Fred unless the game moved deep into their own half. By the twentieth minute, United were operating at a passing accuracy of 90%. Spurs never quite lost shape, and with Son and Bergwijn on the flanks, were waiting for an opening to use their pace on the counter.
Look, you can say what you want about his management style, but Mourinho knows his football, and he knows his footballers. He has built an illustrious career out of the ability to spot chinks in opposition armours, and he knew this United team were going to make their mistakes. In the 26th minute, Luke Shaw, under seemingly no pressure, misplaced an easy header. It was the only invitation Steven Bergwijn needed. He ran like a freight train at the United defence, past Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof and anyone else who tried to get near him, and upon entering the box, lashed a shot too powerful for David De Gea’s palms. 1-0. De Gea isn’t the point-winning goalkeeper he once used to be, and you can imagine Mourinho, having seen him up close for three years, would’ve instructed his forwards to take their shots.
The game completely changed after the goal, but not in the cliched, team in front starting to dominate, way. United’s share of the possession never dropped below 60% throughout the game. Control can mean different things to different people, and to a José Mourinho team, it can often mean the lack of rhythm in the opposition game. Immediately after the restart, Spurs started to press higher, moved their midfield and defence a few yards up, and began to tackle harder. United lost all semblance of fluidity to the point where even Bruno Fernandes was misplacing simple five-yarders. By the end of the first half, United’s passing accuracy had dropped to 83%.
The first fifteen minutes of the second half followed a similar script. The industry of Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko, combined with the work-rate of Bergwijn, Erik Lamela, and Son, didn’t let them have a moment’s peace. Son and Bergwijn found the occasional space behind the United full-backs, but they couldn’t muster enough clear-cut chances to pose a sustained threat. At the hour mark, probably urged on by the gesticulating crowd on the video wall, Solskjaer brought on Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba.
Ever since United acquired Bruno Fernandes in January, their fans have been fantasising about the prospect of a Pogba-Fernandes combination in midfield. Bruno Fernandes is the more correct midfielder, immaculate in his decision-making but with an eye for the occasional Hollywood pass. Pogba is all Hollywood.
In his three and a half years at United, Pogba has been infuriatingly mercurial, but you could tell he was up for this one. Within a minute of stepping onto the pitch, he had recovered an improbable ball deep into the Spurs half and set off on a run at their defenders. By the next minute, he had drawn the usually compact Spurs midfield out of shape and set up Bruno Fernandes to slide a dangerous pass through to Anthony Martial.
The game was still chaotic and chances came at a premium, but it was suddenly bursting with intensity. Oh, the things a world-class midfielder, when on song, can do. The spell peaked with Martial drawing an incredible one-handed save from Hugo Lloris. By the cooling break in the 68th minute, Spurs needed the respite to reorganise themselves. Which they indeed did. The game was calmer after play resumed, with Spurs holding their shape in the face of Pogba and Fernandes trying one penetrative pass after the other.
The creases on Mourinho’s forehead were growing wider by the minute. Pogba was relentless; and in the 80th minute, he drove at Eric Dier from the top right corner of the box. He was too strong and fast for Dier and was clumsily brought down. Fernandes, looking way too calm for a pressure penalty, smacked the ball into the bottom left corner. 1-1; squeaky bum time. A few minutes later, Pogba garnished a stellar cameo with a cross-field pass beyond the Spurs defence, which would’ve found Rashford in ample acreage had his first touch been better. It was coming, you could feel it.
On the 90th minute, it did. Rashford played to Fernandes inside the box, Fernandes turned, Fernandes hit the ground, penalty. José Mourinho imploded on the touchline, remonstrating with the officials like it was 2008. The replays vindicated him – there hadn’t been any contact on Fernandes. The decision was overturned and the game restarted, but Mourinho was irate. The scowl stayed with him till the end of the game and beyond. He made no secret of his grievance in the post-match press conference. Predictably, he didn’t agree with either of the referee’s penalty calls.
Perhaps 1-1 was a fair reflection of a game where neither team really dominated. United had their moments, especially after Pogba showed up; and Spurs did what they set out to do, but couldn’t catch enough gaps to stamp themselves on the game.
Mourinho is still unbeaten in openers, but he is winless in his last seven matches. United haven’t lost since Bruno Fernandes joined them, but they have drawn three out of six Premier League matches in that time. In the race for a top-four spot, Chelsea breathe a little easier.